Why Masks Are Important, Even After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

While the virus circulates, masks are a physical barrier against its transmission.

Although COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out across the US in early 2021, the days of wearing face masks weren't over, as of September 2022. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at reducing the risk of severe illness and death against most variants (new types of the virus).

However, vaccinated people can still contract the virus and pass it on, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's why you may need to wear a mask in certain situations, even if you've been vaccinated and boosted.

Continuing to wear a face mask is also important because of COVID-19 variants that emerged throughout the pandemic, such as Omicron BA.1 or BA.2. Because some variants may be more infectious, they can spread more easily to more people if vaccinated people are able to transmit the virus and don't wear a mask, Anne Rimoin, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told Health.

There's another reason to keep masking up even after you've been vaccinated. "In our modern society, we don't discriminate by immune status, and the ethics of doing so would be a very slippery slope," Michal Tal, PhD, an immunologist at Stanford University, told Health.

"It's already hard to get everyone to follow current masking regulations, and now if you have some people who are vaccinated (and likely, but not certainly, immune from developing COVID-19 symptoms) not needing to adhere to those same regulations, it will wreak additional havoc on what has already been an extremely chaotic pandemic response," Tal said.

When To Wear a Mask

As of Sept. 9, 2022, the CDC said that using layered prevention strategies, "like staying up to date on your vaccines and wearing a mask," can help prevent serious illness. The CDC recommended using your community's COVID-19 level as a guideline for determining when to wear a mask.

If your community level is low, the CDC said you "may choose to mask at any time," though masks were still recommended in indoor public transportation. Local authorities could also add additional masking requirements.

When your community is at a medium level, the CDC recommended getting tested before spending time with anyone who is at a higher risk for serious illness and wearing a mask when indoors with them. If you are at high risk for severe illness, the CDC recommended you "wear a high-quality mask or respirator."

If your community level is high, the CDC recommended that everyone wear a "high-quality mask or respirator." And if you're at high risk of severe illness, the CDC asked that you "consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed."

Will We Ever Be Able To Ditch Our Masks?

Masks may remain a significant part of life for some.

Authors of a December 2021 study published in the journal Microbial Biotechnology noted that masks are a "physical barrier independent of coronavirus variant." The study suggested combining masking and COVID-19 vaccination to contain the pandemic.

"I think that we have to continue to wear masks until everyone has had a chance to get vaccinated and we have gotten the virus under control," Tal said. "When community transmission is low and the majority of people are vaccinated, I think we'll safely be able to put our masks away."

However, nobody knows for sure what role masks will play in our future. "I've often wondered if one day we will move houses and discover an old box of masks from these days and dust it off, not having thought about it in years, or if we will start to utilize masks more and more to control the spread of other respiratory infections, such as in an especially bad flu year," Tal said.

"I suspect that moving forward, doctors and nurses may incorporate masks as a standard part of personal protective equipment for their interactions with patients, much as glove-wearing became standard during the AIDS epidemic and then became standard protective gear," Rimoin added. "I think that the vast majority of us, however, can look forward to mask-free days as soon as everyone has had a chance to get vaccinated and viral spread in the community is low."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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