During the pandemic, we learned that face masks are highly efficient tool to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 as they help to limit the spread of respiratory droplets, the main means of infection.
Although we have not yet reached herd immunity, scientists are already considering how using a face mask could be useful after a pandemic. HuffPost spoke with experts who explained how and when masking may be appropriate, even after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.
During the flu season, if you are sick
Proper adherence to the mask is more than coronavirus protection: Last year we saw the lowest number of flu infections in history.
“Masking is always good for protecting people from respiratory diseases: If you are an infected person, you are less likely to pass the infection on to someone else,” he said. Bernard Cummins, Medical Director for Infection Prevention in Mount Sinai Health System.
Cummins noted that our standard, pre-pandemic messages to “cover cough” in public health may not go far enough. Instead, forward guidelines should include telling people to stay home if they are sick and to wear a mask if they experience symptoms and cannot stay home.
When you want protection in crowded interiors
We learned that close contact with others in poorly ventilated rooms is the fastest way to spread the virus. Even after COVID-19, we will be at risk of contracting respiratory infections – from the flu to the common cold – whenever we find ourselves in crowded indoor spaces.
It may make sense to disguise ourselves in some of these circumstances for added protection, said Fred Pelzman, a general internist and associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
“When you’re around a lot of people you don’t know, in a situation with stagnant air that doesn’t recycle, I think masks will continue to be important,” Pelzman told HuffPost, referring to full theaters, school auditoriums, indoor sports arenas and public transport as examples of spaces where distancing can be difficult.
As technology improves and we learn more, we can see improvements to indoor ventilation systems and protective measures that can make interiors safer overall. Currently, schools, stadiums, bars and restaurants have used temperature checks and / or rapid testing to check people who want to go inside. Both methods have limits on their accuracy, but over time we can see modifications that lead to greater efficiency, Pelzman said.
When there are new variants of COVID-19 or when your immunity is lower
COVID-19 will probably never disappear completely. Even if we reach herd immunity – which provides us with strong protection against the virus – it will continue to exist in the population. And like the flu, it will continue to mutate as new variants emerge.
The data show that vaccines provide stable immunity for at least six months, but it is not yet clear how long the protection remains after that. Scientists are working on Pfizer and Moderna booster photos, and they say we may need them within 12 months of the first vaccination.
As there are still examples of ‘vaccine breakthroughs’ – cases in which vaccinated people become infected with the virus – and due to vaccine variability, there are still vulnerable people, the virus may continue to spread and develop with new variants. Said Cummins.
Faced with these unknown risks, universal masking can help prevent the spread of the virus as new variants emerge until we get booster images.
While traveling or when you are at risk
At present, the incidence of vaccination and the incidence of COVID-19 infections vary widely between the US and between the countries. Until we reach herd immunity worldwide – a schedule that is still a big question – we are potentially exposing vulnerable populations that have not yet been vaccinated when we travel from low to high risk areas. Wearing masks on airplanes or other types of transit, as well as in public places, if we are among the at-risk population, can help keep everyone safe.
It is crucial that public health officials continue to “track and monitor communities to know the spread of the virus,” Pelzman said. And before you travel, look for COVID positivity and vaccination rates for your destination.
Coronavirus is not the first new outbreak of the virus and will probably not be the last. But we know that wearing masks when we can’t safely distance ourselves from others can help prevent infection and the spread of infection. Continuing this habit of masking in certain situations can help manage the risk of a common disease.