Don’t discard face masks just yet

The favorite one; the least favorite one; the backup in the car or purse; the special occasion one. Masks have made their way into our lives for the past year as an important tool in fighting the pandemic, but as we see more vaccinations and fewer positive COVID cases, it’s important to remember that they still play a vital role in infection control and might be needed for the future. A Baylor College of Medicine infectious diseases expert explains.

“We know that wearing masks is an effective strategy for reducing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Stacey Rose, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Baylor. “Even after vaccination, there remains at least a small chance of becoming infected with COVID-19 and/or spreading the infection to others. Wearing masks is therefore still recommended in certain situations, such as when traveling or in contact with persons who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated.”

One question on the minds of many people is what restrictions will change once herd immunity is reached, but Rose said that it will likely vary on a case-by-case basis.

“First, we still don’t know exactly what percentage of our population would need to be either infected or vaccinated to reach herd immunity and effectively stop the spread of the virus. Also, there have been reports of re-infection, so even once we know that most people have either had the infection or have been vaccinated, there may still be a role for wearing masks to protect ourselves and others.”

Because the seasonality of COVID-19 is not yet clear, masks could play an important role in future outbreaks as well, Rose said. In other parts of the world where communities have faced prior epidemics such as SARS, masking is more common because of the recognition of their effectiveness. It may be that masking becomes more common in other parts of the world as communities work to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses and other infections.

“Our understanding is that masks covering the mouth and nose are effective in preventing a variety of infections by reducing the spread of infectious particles from person to person,” Rose said. “For example, beyond COVID-19, we believe masks also reduce the spread of influenza, RSV and parainfluenza. Interestingly, the rates of those other viruses are substantially lower this year, supporting the idea that masks are preventing infections other than SARS-CoV-2.”

Mask wearing in large group settings will be important for some time, Rose said, particularly for indoor settings such as schools, conferences, retail environments and community gatherings.

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