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Where Should We Be Wearing Masks? Expert Advice On Mask Best Practices As More People Are Vaccinated

Editor’s note 1/10/2022: If you’re reading this in 2022, experts are no longer recommending cloth masks or DIY masks for protection against the Omicron variant. Check out our more recent mask coverage to learn more about the kind of masks that would be the best fit for your family. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threw a curveball in May by announcing those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (as in, you’re received your two doses and waited two weeks to fully immunize) can pretty much stop wearing a mask whether you’re inside or outdoors.

“Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” said the CDC in a statement.

The news was surprising for most of us. Just when we were getting used to having masks being a way of life, including everything from matching masks with our outfits to the dreaded maskne, now we don’t have to wear a mask? Or do we?

“The new mask guidelines have led some people to believe that everyone can stop wearing masks and they also rely on an honor system, trusting that unvaccinated individuals will continue to wear masks,” says Dr. Sri Banerjee, MD, PhD, MPH, MS, CPH, MCHES, faculty member in Walden University’s PhD in Public Health program. “However, the reality is that even in businesses where this honor system is used, many individuals are not properly adhering to the guidelines. This ambiguity has also caused some confusion among the general public.”

Whether you need to wear a mask indoors in public spaces, like grocery stores or restaurants, will depend on local laws and guidelines, as well as businesses, which make their own operating decisions. Schools will also have to make their rules when it comes to masks.

No wonder the latest changes have left us with a lot of questions. However, experts believe  we shouldn’t ditch our masks just yet even if we are fully vaccinated.

“While a growing number of people are becoming fully vaccinated, giving them as solid a shield of protection as possible against getting severely ill with COVID, the issue of masking becomes more complicated,” says Dr. William W. Li, MD, physician, scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.

“COVID is an infection that is transmitted by aerosolization, so wearing a proper mask is the best way to prevent getting infected.”

Why should I wear a mask if I’m fully vaccinated?

Dr. Li says, in reference to the CDC’s new guidelines, you do not have to wear a mask outdoors or indoors, unless you are in a crowded public situation because “not everyone around you will be vaccinated in those situations and you still could be exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID.  These are called ‘breakthrough infections’ While you won’t likely get seriously ill, you could still transmit the virus to another person who is not yet vaccinated.”

This is especially important if you are going somewhere where you will be around more vulnerable individuals, says Dr. Banerjee, because “even if you are vaccinated, you can still transmit the COVID-19 virus. A person is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after getting the last dose of a COVID-19 vaccine series (after the second dose of a two-dose series, or after one dose of a single-dose vaccine). In situations where a mix of fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people may be present, the use of face masks by everyone will reduce the risk to individuals who are not fully vaccinated, including children ages 11 and under.”

Under which circumstances can I stop wearing my mask?

“Regardless of vaccination status, you do not need to wear masks for some situations,” says Dr. Banerjee. “For example, no mask is needed for casual outdoor activities such as biking, running or walking, with members of your household. This is because researchers have found that rates of outdoor transmission are very low.

There is also no need for a mask if you are attending a small outdoor gathering with friends and/or family who are fully vaccinated, or if you are visiting indoors with fully vaccinated people from one household.

Why do I need to wear a mask in some situations versus others?

“For people who are fully vaccinated, if you are with others who are fully vaccinated you do not need to wear a mask because the risk of being infected is extremely low,” says Dr. Li. “In situations where you are not certain if others around you are vaccinated, you may wish to consider wearing a mask to be extra careful. Wearing a proper mask cuts down the risk of infection to a very low level.”

Additionally, there may be some settings or circumstances where you will be asked by a business or host to wear a mask as a courtesy to others, such as in a restaurant or a theater. Masking is also mandatory in certain settings such as schools, homeless shelters and correctional facilities. As Dr. Li puts it: “Negotiating that situation is up to you.”

Adds Dr. Banerjee, “Fully vaccinated people who are immunocompromised may not be fully protected and should discuss whether they need to wear a mask with their healthcare provider.”

What if I want to wear a mask in a place that doesn’t require me to wear one? 

“I recommend that individuals err on the side of caution when thinking about protecting themselves and others,” says Dr. Banerjee. “Always remember that there is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in any crowd, which means that everyone may not have the same level of protection as you. Policy and common sense should be used together to guide your decision about whether and when to wear masks.”

What if I’m not fully vaccinated yet? Should I still wear a mask?

If you are not fully vaccinated yet, Dr. Li recommends you should still mask outdoors and indoors, as before.

“Since you will not have the fullest protection of the vaccine until after the final injection and two weeks following. You could become infected, and you could infect others. Wearing a mask cuts down the risk considerably.”

If you have not been vaccinated at all, for whatever reason, Dr. Li says wearing a mask is the best way to protect yourself and others around you from the risk of getting COVID: “While cases are declining in many places, the pandemic is not over and people are still getting sick, and unfortunately some people are still dying of COVID. Until there is a way to know who has been fully vaccinated, masking will be reliant upon the honor system for the most part, and whether you are someone who prefers to be extra cautious.”

This kids face mask gallery is a good place to start shopping!

kids face masks

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