One year can make an incredible difference. Before March 2020, many of us had never worn face mask protection. Today, quite a few of us would probably feel strange to leave our homes without it!
But while this form of COVID-19 protection has proven to be a literal lifesaver during this pandemic, many of us are wondering one thing: When will we stop wearing face masks for COVID-19?
Pandemic Protocols Are Already Easing for Some
As COVID-19 variants spread across the world, public health experts are urging many of us to continue practicing caution. But for a lucky few, their pandemic protocols are already easing. In a set of new guidelines, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated that those who have been fully vaccinated can see other fully-vaccinate people completely unmasked. They can even meet indoors if they want to.
But despite the US's rapid vaccine distribution and optimism regarding potential herd immunity, risks still remain. As previously mentioned, COVID-19 variants are popping up everywhere around the world, and they could jeopardize the efficacy of current vaccines being administered. In fact, epidemiologists expect case numbers to rise throughout this spring season. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US's leading immunologist, has even said that Americans may need to don coronavirus protection until 2022 to be truly safe.
Looking beyond COVID-19, health experts strongly agree that there are good reasons to keep some face masks around for future use.
Face Masks Will Still Be Here After COVID-19 Is Gone
After COVID-19 cases and deaths drop significantly, we'll likely reach a point where wearing face masks in the grocery store or other businesses isn't necessary anymore. This "unmasking" will probably be regional. Some states like Texas have already rolled back mask mandates. Experts have deemed this to be risky since a substantial portion of the adult population in these locations has not been vaccinated yet.
Each state and locality will follow their own timeline for unmasking. While some will wait for herd immunity to be reached, others will require masking even after most of their population is vaccinated. Why? Because COVID-19 is likely to have a resurgence in the fall and winter months. In fact, it will probably become an endemic disease that we must be cognizant of during these seasons, much like the seasonal flu.
Besides being a health requirement, face masks will remain a social one for many people. While covering your face before entering a business felt strange a year ago, it now feels second nature today. And the risk of COVID-19 dropping off will not stop many people from still choosing to benefit from the extra germ protection that face masks provide, even if they and their loved ones have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Another way of looking at this is by examining the anxiety that many of us feel in this new reality. "Anxiety" may be the perfect word to describe the past year. So, leaving the house to venture out in public without a face mask in tow will probably take some practice for a lot of us. As we transition to another "new normal," face masks may simply just be a way of being polite and respectful of each other's safety.
As with anything in science, our understanding of face masks is still evolving. We know that they do an amazing job of stopping the spread of COVID-19. But other infectious diseases spread differently. For example, some research suggests that face masks don't prevent the common cold from spreading as well as they do against COVID-19. This could be due to the fact that common cold viruses spread more on surfaces than COVID-19 does.
Either way, after a year of masking up and being hyper-aware of health risks, Americans may not hesitate to don a face mask whenever they feel sick or want to avoid falling ill during flu season.
Will There be a COVID-19 Surge This Summer?
It's difficult to predict what will happen in the near future since COVID-19 cases are declining in some areas of the world and increasing in others thanks to variants. But Dr. Anthony Fauci suggests that whether we have a COVID-19 surge this summer depends on infection rates continuing to decline rather than just plateauing.
In a recent interview with Face the Nation, Fauci explained, "When you’re coming down from a big peak and you reach a point and start to plateau, once you stay at that plateau, you’re really in danger of a surge coming up. And unfortunately, that’s what we’re starting to see."
Neither Fauci or the CDC have given any threshold for infection rates or a definitive date on when face masks would no longer be necessary to wear. It's obvious that it will depend on a significant reduction in new cases. Whatever happens, it's clear that we shouldn't set aside our masks just yet.
"Right now, the one thing I do know is that we have between 50,000 and 60,000 new infections a day. When you’re at that level, you still gotta wear a mask," said Fauci.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is closer in sight than ever before. But to actually reach it, we'll all need to do our part. Please keep washing your hands frequently, social distancing, and wearing face mask protection whenever you venture out into public. And if you're eligible, please get your COVID-19 vaccine. Together, we'll beat this pandemic.
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