Mask mandates are a moving target. For months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that you wear one in public. In May, it revised the recommendation by saying that fully vaccinated adults could stop wearing masks in most cases. Then when the delta variant began to surge, the advice changed again. Now even vaccinated people are supposed to wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission.
You’d be forgiven for being confused by these evolving standards on mask wearing. But regardless what the norms are in your local diner or grocery store, there’s good reason to just keep on wearing a mask for the time being.
For starters, wearing a mask adds a layer of protection against spreading COVID-19 to people who are immunocompromised or not vaccinated, including millions of kids under age 12. This is true for you even if you’re fully vaccinated.
While the vaccines are incredibly effective in preventing serious illness, it’s still possible to be infected, especially with the highly contagious delta variant, says Shirin Mazumder, MD. She’s an infectious disease specialist at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Even if you have a mild case or show no symptoms at all, there’s a chance you could pass the virus on to others.
Wearing a mask requires little effort and is an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19. So, yes, it’s still worthwhile and important to cover up. “As more contagious variants circulate, there is nothing wrong with continuing to wear a mask to keep yourself and the people around you safe,” Dr. Mazumder says.
Here are 5 situations when wearing a mask just makes good sense.
(You know what else makes sense? Saving at the pharmacy with our prescription discount card.)
You feel sick
Is it a cold, the flu or COVID-19? Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell. So if you start feeling sick, wear a mask, limit your contact with other people and call your doctor. Even if it turns out you have a cold or the flu, wearing a mask still protects others around you, Dr. Mazumder says. Masks reduce the amount of cold and flu viruses you could cough or breathe out, says a 2020 study in Nature Medicine.
You’re taking public transportation
Whether on a plane, bus or train, you’ll likely be sitting close to strangers for a while. That makes public transportation a smart place to wear a mask even if you’re fully vaccinated, Dr. Mazumder says.
Masks have been shown to be very effective on planes in particular, according to a review published in the Journal of Travel Medicine. In one case, a total of 58 passengers on five 8-hour flights from Dubai to Hong Kong tested positive for COVID-19. Yet among the 1,500 to 2,000 masked passengers on those planes, not one got infected during the flights.
You’re in a public indoor spot
While it’s possible to get COVID-19 when outdoors, most major infections have come from indoor contact. That’s especially the case in places that aren’t well ventilated. The more time you spend indoors, unmasked and in close contact with people, the more likely you are to come down with COVID-19, says the CDC.
That’s true even if you’re vaccinated — although your risk of getting COVID-19, especially a serious case, is far less. “Masking in these settings is extremely effective in reducing the spread of the virus and keeping yourself protected,” Dr. Mazumder says.
Have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine? We have answers.
You’re immunocompromised or are close with someone who is
Certain health conditions can make it harder for your body to fight off infections. Examples are cancer, diabetes and some genetic disorders. Certain medications and procedures, such as radiation therapy or having an organ transplant, can hinder your immune system, too.
Having a weakened immune system ups the chances that you could get severely ill from COVID-19. On top of that, the COVID-19 vaccine may not work as well as it should — if at all. For example, a study published in JAMA found that 46% of people who had received an organ donation made no antibodies against COVID-19 after getting both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
“Fully vaccinated people with weakened immune systems should talk to their doctors before unmasking, as they may have a reduced level of protection,” Dr. Mazumder says.
You live in or are visiting an area with low vaccination rates
Areas with lower vaccination rates are showing much higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, says the CDC. On Aug. 1, for example, all 6 states with the highest daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people had full vaccination rates below the 49.6% U.S. average.
That might not come as a surprise. But if you live in a place with low vaccination rates or high levels of community spread, mask up in public indoor settings, Dr. Mazumder says. That’s smart even if you’re just running into a convenience store to grab a drink.
No matter your reasons for masking up, feel confident that you’re taking steps to protect yourself and save countless other lives.
Visit the CDC website to get the most up-to-date COVID-19 information.
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Guidance for wearing masks: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How effective masks are at reducing spread of cold and flu viruses: Nature Medicine (2020). “Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks”
How effective masks are on planes: Journal of Travel Medicine (2020). “In-flight transmission of SARS-CoV-2: a review of the attack rates and available data on the efficacy of face masks”
How to protect yourself (and others) if you’re fully vaccinated: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How to protect yourself if you haven’t been vaccinated: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Vaccine effectiveness in people who have received organ transplants: JAMA (2021). “Antibody Response to 2-Dose SARS-CoV-2 mRNA Vaccine Series in Solid Organ Transplant Recipients”