During the pandemic, we learned that face masks are one very effective tool to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 because they help keep the spread of respiratory droplets, the primary infectious agent.
Although we still have not reached herd immunity, researchers are already thinking ahead about how the use of a face mask can prove beneficial after the pandemic. HuffPost spoke with experts who explained how and when masking might be appropriate, even after the threat of COVID-1
During flu season if you are sick
Proper adherence to the mask did more than protect against coronavirus: Last year, we experienced the lowest number of influenza infections in recorded history.
Like COVID-19, influenza is a respiratory virus that is spread by inhaling infected droplets. Many coronavirus guidelines for public health would also apply to the flu: wash your hands, stay home if you feel sick, and wear a mask if you cannot safely distance yourself from others indoors.
“Masking is always good when it comes to protecting people from respiratory diseases: if you are the infected person, you are less likely to pass the infection on to someone else,” he said. Bernard Camins, Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Mount Sinai Health System.
Camins noted that our standard, pre-pandemic “covers your cough” public health messages may not go far enough. Instead, guidance in the future should include telling people to stay home if they are sick, and to wear a mask if they experience symptoms and are unable to stay home.
When you want protection in crowded, indoor spaces
We have learned that close contact with others in poorly ventilated rooms is the fastest way to spread the virus. Even after COVID-19, we run the risk of getting respiratory infections – from flu to colds – when we are in crowded indoor spaces.
It might make sense to hide under some of these circumstances for extra protection, said Fred Pelzman, general intern and associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
“When you’re near a lot of people you do not know in a situation of air not being recycled, I think masks will continue to be important,” Pelzman told HuffPost, naming crowded cinemas, school auditoriums, indoor sports arenas and public transport as examples of spaces where distance can be difficult.
As technology improves and we learn more, we may see improvements in indoor ventilation systems and protection measures that can generally make indoor spaces safer. Right now, schools, stadiums and bars and restaurants have used temperature control and / or quick testing to screen people who want to go inside. Both methods have limits to their accuracy, but over time we could see changes leading to greater efficiency, Pelzman said.
When there are new variants of COVID-19, or when your immunity is lower
COVID-19 will probably never completely disappear. Even if we reach herd immunity – which gives us strong protection against the virus – it will continue to exist in the population. And like the flu, it will continue to mutate with new varieties.
Data show that vaccines provide robust immunity for at least six months, but it is still unclear how long the protection is left after that. Researchers are working on Pfizer and Moderna booster shot, and they say we could need them within 12 months of first being vaccinated.
“Because there are still examples of ‘vaccine breakthroughs’ – cases where vaccinated people get the virus – and because of vaccine hesitation, there are still vulnerable people, the virus may continue to spread and develop with new variants,” he said. Camins.
Faced with these unknown risks, universal masking can help protect us from spreading the virus as new variants emerge until we get booster shots.
During travel or in the vicinity of vulnerable populations
Vaccination rates and cases of COVID-19 infections currently vary widely between U.S. regions and between countries. Until we reach crew immunity worldwide – where the timeline is still very much a question mark – we will expose potentially vulnerable populations who have not yet been vaccinated when we travel from low to high risk areas. Wearing masks on planes or other forms of transit as well as in public spaces if we are among a vulnerable population can help protect everyone.
It’s key that public health officials continue to “track and monitor communities to know the presence of the virus,” Pelzman said. And before you travel, look up the COVID positivity rate and vaccination rate for your destination.
Coronavirus is not the first new virus outbreak, and it is unlikely to be the last. But we know that wearing masks when we are not at a safe distance from others can help protect us from becoming infected and spreading infections. Continuing this habit of masking up in certain situations can help manage the risk of widespread disease along the line.