Some states, including Montana, Iowa, North Dakota, Mississippi, and Texas, recently announced the end of their mask mandates.
But not wearing a mask right now is “a very bad idea, especially with the spreading variants,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends that people age 2 and older wear a mask in public around people outside of their household—which raises the question: When will we realistically stop wearing face masks? And will they become the new normal during cold and flu season? Here’s what infectious disease experts know so far.
When can we safely stop wearing face masks?
It’s “hard to say,” given that the end of regular face mask wearing is tied to the end of the pandemic, Dr. Watkins says. But, he adds, “if and when we achieve herd immunity, routine mask wearing can likely be discontinued.” (Herd immunity means a majority of a population is immune to an infectious disease, providing indirect protection to those who are not immune to the disease, such as newborns or vulnerable people who cannot get vaccinated due to health risks.)
Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said on CNN that it’s “possible” public health officials will continue to recommend masks in 2022. However, he said, life should look more normal by then, adding, “we’re going to have a significant degree of normality beyond the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year.”
Doctors agree that masks will likely be recommended for a while. “Prevention of infection remains the single best way to reduce disease and death, and the best prevention derives from mask wearing and social distancing,” says Lewis Nelson, M.D., chair of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “Until we have better information on the development of viral variant strains and the effectiveness of current or future vaccines, we have to wear masks in many of our interpersonal interactions.”
It’s likely that some type of mask guidance will be in place until there is a “sufficient decrease in community spread of the virus,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That may be late 2021, as more people get access to the vaccine.”
As for actual mask mandates, “this will be done on the state-by-state basis,” Dr. Adalja says. But as COVID-19 spread decreases in certain areas, mask mandates may eventually go away, he notes.
Will face masks be recommended after the COVID-19 pandemic?
Photo credit: Luis Alvarez – Getty Images
It’s possible, especially since masks are proven to fend off infection. Flu season practically didn’t exist this year—data from the CDC found that there have been just 1,500 clinically diagnosed cases of the flu since September. That’s a huge drop-off compared to last year’s flu season, which saw an estimated 56 million cases.
Because of this, experts say masks may have staying power—at least, during cold and flu season. “Masks were common in Asia pre-COVID, so I expect more people in the U.S. will be comfortable wearing them after the pandemic,” Dr. Watkins says.
Dr. Adalja points out that it’s always been recommended that people wear a mask if they have a respiratory virus, even before the pandemic. “That won’t change, but more people will be likely to adhere to it,” he says.
And some people may continue to wear masks in public, like crowded areas and on public transit, simply because they’ve seen masks can work to help prevent illness, Dr. Adalja notes.
For now, doctors say, keep masking up until public health officials give Americans the green light to go out in public without one.
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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