Confused About Mask Guidelines for Vaccinated People? Start By Asking Yourself These 3 Questions From an ER Doctor

Photo: Stocksy / Ivan Gener
Two months after stating that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in public, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance. On Tuesday, the agency announced that people who live in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 community transmission rates should wear masks in public indoor spaces, even if they're fully vaccinated. The CDC's new guidance applies to 60 percent of counties in the United States, but it has been difficult to know exactly who should mask up. For example, the World Health Organization says that everyone—vaccinated or not—should wear masks in public indoors regardless of transmission rates and has held that recommendation since late May. In states like California and Nevada, people in certain counties must wear masks in public spaces.

Experts In This Article

It's important to follow the mask guidance wherever you live (or visit) and to respect policies set forth by businesses you enter. But, if masks aren't required, and you're looking to understand when it's wise to wear one, Darien Sutton, MD, MBA, an emergency medicine physician, explained on his Instagram stories that there are three questions you can ask yourself.

Ask yourself these 3 questions to know when to wear a mask

1. Am I fully vaccinated? If the answer is no, then wear a mask.

2. Do I know the vaccination status of those around me? If the answer is no, then wear a mask.

3. Am I in a room with limited ventilation with others of unknown vaccine status? If the answer is yes, then wear a mask.

Why wearing a mask is still important

COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets, which travel into the air when you cough, sneeze, talk, shout, or sing. Masks act as a barrier to prevent these droplets from reaching others. While older CDC recommendations suggested that vaccinated people didn't need to wear masks, the guidelines are changing amid the spread of the Delta variant, a more harmful version of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Delta variant is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the U.S. and is spreading rapidly through communities with low vaccination rates. Still, vaccination remains our most effective defense: Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have all proven effective, though to a lesser degree, against the development of symptomatic and severe cases of COVID-19 from the Delta variant. But even if you don't show any symptoms, it's possible for a vaccinated person to catch the virus and pass it to someone else.

As of July 19, 2021, CDC data shows that 161 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and 5,914 vaccinated patients with a breakthrough infection were hospitalized or died. That's just 0.004 percent of vaccinated people. "This vaccine is effective, and it's proven helpful to protect us against COVID-19, but it doesn't make us invincible," Dr. Darien said on ABC News last week. "So we need to use it in conjunction with other mitigation efforts to decrease our risk."

Additionally, as COVID-19 continues to spread, there is more room for mutation, allowing space for other harmful variants to arise. "Variants occur when the virus is transmitted from person to person. The virus mutates slightly; that's normal, we expect that," says Jennifer Horney, PhD, MPH, founding director of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware. "The more it transmits from person to person, the more opportunity it has to mutate, so we need to use the vaccines to stop that transmission."

As COVD-19 guidance continues to evolve, mask-wearing is one very important piece in our COVID-19 protection toolkit.

Listen to a biochemist explain how vaccines work:

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