Why Masks Are Still Important, Even After Getting the COVID Vaccine

With the virus circulating, masks are a physical barrier against its transmission.

An effective vaccine was the first big step toward ending the coronavirus pandemic, and that's exactly what rolled out across the US in early 2021. But our days of wearing face masks aren't over. While the COVID-19 vaccines are effective at reducing the risk of severe illness and death, vaccinated people can still contract the virus and pass it on, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's why experts strongly advise masking in certain situations, even if you've been vaccinated.

Continuing to wear a face mask is also important because of the new COVID variants that have been identified. Because they're thought to 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."

When to wear a mask

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that using layered prevention strategies—like staying up to date on your vaccines and wearing a mask—can help prevent serious illness. The CDC recommends 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 says to "wear a mask based on your personal preference, informed by your personal level of risk."

When the community is at a medium level, the CDC recommends 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 immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness, the CDC recommends you talk to your healthcare provider about extra precautions you should be taking, such as wearing a mask or respirator indoors while in public.

In the event your community level is high, the CDC recommends wearing a well-fitting mask indoors in public regardless of your vaccination status or individual risk. And if you're immunocompromised, wear a mask or respirator that provides greater protection for you.

Will we ever be able to ditch our masks?

They may remain a significant part of life for some.

"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," she 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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