Are face masks forever?

Many people were confused when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said vaccinated people can resume most activities without wearing masks both indoors and out (while following local business and workplace guidelines). The new guidelines also opened things up for those who are not vaccinated—it’s now OK for them to go without masks outdoors when they bike, walk, or run alone or with other members of their household. 

The update doesn’t mean the CDC has given anyone the right to insist on living mask-free—there are still guidelines in place, especially for those who are unvaccinated. What it did was give many grocery stores, employers, and others the ability to make their own rules. “A lot of people were caught off guard,” says Dr. Shenoi. “I tend to be on the cautious side. I’m still wearing my mask inside at stores and at work because I’m interacting with people, and I’m not sure if they are vaccinated.” 

There’s nothing that’s ‘safe’—it’s always ‘safer.’ If you are fully vaccinated, it is safer than it was a year ago to be around people without a mask. Carlos Oliveira, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist

Research done this past year shows that masks offer some level of protection. For example, one study from the CDC showed that, within 20 days of the implementation of mask mandates, there were significant declines in COVID-19 case counts and deaths in the areas that made the ruling.

Both doctors say they are wearing masks alongside their children when out of the house, since they are too young to be eligible for a vaccine. Dr. Oliveira says his greatest concern is for children exposed to adults who could be infected, since the majority of infected children got COVID-19 after exposure to an infected parent or other adult. Also, he suggests doing whatever you can to limit a child’s exposure to unvaccinated people. “My advice—if your children can’t get the vaccine by the time school starts—is to make sure they are with immunized people outside of school,” he says. “Try to get everyone in the family who can get the vaccine to get it.”

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Karen Jubanyik, MD, a Yale Medicine emergency medicine specialist, is also careful to wear a mask around people who have compromised immune systems, whether they are elderly, or taking immuno-suppression medications, or if they are an organ transplant recipient or have a condition such as cancer that affects the immune system.

“The vaccinations weren’t well tested in those populations, and we remain concerned that the vaccines might not be as effective in them,” Dr. Jubanyik says.

Anyone trying to decide whether or not to wear a mask might also consider two other factors: the potential for breakthrough infections and geographic location, Dr. Jubanyik says.

“Even the best vaccinations are 95% effective, and that’s good news for any given person, but across 350 million people in the U.S., that’s still a lot of potential infections,” she says. “That means you have to know the status of where you are and where you’re going. There are pockets in this country and entire other countries where there aren’t many people who are fully vaccinated and infection rates are high. I think it is important to realize it could be potentially dangerous to you, as well as other people, to not wear a mask.”

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