The first COVID-19 vaccine doses are now being distributed in the U.S. But do you still have to wear a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine? It might seem like getting the vaccine would make a mask unnecessary, but experts caution otherwise.
Face masks are one of a few crucial public health measures we have that we know can help slow the spread of COVID-19. And, because not everyone has been on board with masks, President-elect Biden has said that he’ll ask the public to wear masks for the first 100 days of his term.
Masks are so important because we know the coronavirus spreads mostly through respiratory droplets containing viral particles. People who have the infection can spread those droplets when they cough, sneeze, talk, or yell, and the droplets can then land in someone else’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Others can also inhale those droplets, possibly causing an infection. A mask prevents the wearer from spreading those droplets and protects them from inhaling them.
There are a few important reasons to keep wearing a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. For one thing, the vaccine appears to be highly effective at preventing symptomatic infections, but it’s not 100% effective. Additionally, we don’t know how effective the vaccine is at preventing infections that don’t come with symptoms or preventing transmission of the virus between people. That means that, even with a vaccine, there’s a chance you could develop the infection (which might be asymptomatic) and be able to spread it to others—especially if you’re not wearing a mask.
“This is the main reason why we can’t stop wearing masks right after we get the vaccine,” Leana Wen, M.D., an emergency physician and visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, told CNN. “The vaccine will protect you from getting ill and then ending up hospitalized. But it’s possible that you could still carry the virus and be contagious to others. So those who get the vaccine should still be wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.”
The potential risk of spreading the infection will be greater before the vaccine becomes widely available to the general public because, until then, most people in the country won’t have access to the level of protection a vaccine can provide. “We’re not going to have a broad public health effect until we get the overwhelming majority of the people vaccinated,” Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “I think we need to not abandon public health measures [including masks] at all,” he continued, until the country as a whole is in a situation where the level of virus is so low that it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get infected.
For these reasons, and considering that experts don’t anticipate the vaccine being that widely available until at least April of next year, Dr. Fauci previously said that we could be wearing masks for a good chunk of 2021. So although the authorization and distribution of these vaccines is likely to have a huge impact on how we resolve the pandemic, their effects will not be immediate. And even those who’ve gotten the vaccine will need to keep up the other public health tools we have—including masks, social distancing, and washing hands frequently—for at least a little while longer.
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