The recent masking update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows promise in balancing the risk of transmitting COVID-19 with the need to provide some return of “normalcy” to those who have been vaccinated. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a mask outdoors, except in certain crowded settings.
“We are going to need a combination of masking, distancing and vaccines to control the pandemic,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC’s medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology. “Use personal judgement to understand the situation you’re in, and make the decision to wear a mask based on the risks you and those around you may face.”
Different situations contribute to a change in risk levels. To help gauge these risks, Snyder recommended asking the following questions:
• Who is vulnerable? (For this pandemic, age is a major factor.)
• What is the vaccination status of the group?
• How close will people be physically?
• What activity are you engaging in?
• What is the air flow like?
Dr. Rutul Dalal, director of infectious disease, UPMC in North Central Pennsylvania, shared other circumstances where masking restrictions may be relaxed.
“A mask does not need to be worn indoors among fully vaccinated family members, friends and other close contacts,” said Dalal. “You don’t need to wear a mask with individuals who are not fully vaccinated but at a low risk of catching the infection.” If there are multiple households together indoors, masking is important for everyone.
Even though restrictions are easing slightly, Dalal encouraged everyone to stay diligent.
“You must understand what it means to be fully vaccinated,” he said. “With Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, you are fully vaccinated 14 days after your second dose. With Johnson & Johnson, it’s 14 days after your single dose. You should not ease up on your mask-wearing until those 14 days have passed.”
This update does not change masking guidelines in health care settings, indoor settings where vaccination statuses are unknown and other specific gatherings.
“The vaccines put us on the roadmap to recovery,” said Dalal. “This is a positive move from the CDC, but there’s still work to be done to protect those who are vulnerable.”
Although the vaccines are safe and highly effective, they are not perfect at preventing people from becoming sick or being contagious if exposed. Therefore, while COVID-19 is still active, both layers of protection are needed —vaccination and infection prevention — to control the pandemic and protect vulnerable loved ones in our communities.