4 Times We Should Wear A Face Mask After The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Over
(Photo: Mensent Photography via Getty Images)
During the pandemic, we learned that face masks are a powerful tool in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 as they help curb the spread of respiratory droplets, the primary infectious agent.
While we haven't reached herd immunity yet, scientists are already considering how the use of face masks could prove beneficial after the pandemic. HuffPost spoke to experts who explained how and when masking might be appropriate even after the COVID-19 threat subsided.
During the flu season when you are sick
Proper compliance with the masks did more than just protect against coronavirus: in the past year, we recorded the lowest number of flu infections in recorded history.
Like COVID-19, influenza is a respiratory virus that is transmitted by inhaling infected droplets. Many coronavirus public health guidelines also apply to influenza: wash your hands, stay home if you feel sick, and wear a mask if you cannot safely move away from others indoors.
"Masking is always good for protecting people from respiratory disease: if you are infected, you are less likely to pass the infection on to someone else," said Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at Mount Sinai Health System.
Camins noted that our standard pre-pandemic public health reports that cover your cough may not go far enough. Future guidelines should instead include encouraging people to stay home if they are sick and wear a mask if they have 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 risk respiratory infections - from the flu to the common cold - when we are in crowded indoor spaces.
It might make sense to mask yourself for added protection in some of these circumstances, said Fred Pelzman, general internist and associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
"When you're with a lot of people you didn't know in a non-recirculated air situation, I think masks will continue to be important," Pelzman told HuffPost, citing jam-packed cinemas, school auditoriums and indoor sports arenas and public transportation as examples for rooms where distancing can be difficult.
As technology improves and we learn more, we may see improvements in interior ventilation systems and protective measures that could make the interior safer overall. Currently schools, stadiums, bars and restaurants use temperature checks and / or rapid tests to screen people trying to go inside. Both methods have limits to their accuracy, but over time we have seen modifications that result in greater effectiveness, Pelzman said.
Wearing a mask can provide protection from respiratory disease when you are in close proximity to others. (Photo: LeoPatrizi via Getty Images)
When there are new variants of COVID-19 or when your immunity is lower
COVID-19 is unlikely to go away entirely. Even if we achieve the herd immunity that gives us strong protection from the virus, it will persist in the population. And like the flu, it will continue to mutate and new variants will emerge.
The data shows that vaccines provide robust immunity for at least six months. However, it is still unclear how long the protection will last afterwards. Scientists are working on Pfizer and Moderna booster shots and say we might need them within 12 months of the first vaccination.
"Since there are still examples of 'vaccine breakthroughs' - cases where people who have been vaccinated become infected with the virus - and people still at risk due to the reluctance to use the vaccine, the virus could spread and evolve with new variants," said Camins.
Given these unknown risks, universal masking could protect us from the spread of the virus as new variants emerge until we receive booster vaccinations.
While traveling or in the vicinity of vulnerable populations
Vaccination rates and cases of COVID-19 infection currently vary widely between US regions and between countries. By the time we reach herd immunity globally - the timetable is still a question mark - we are exposing potentially vulnerable populations who have not yet been vaccinated when we travel from low to high risk areas. Wearing masks on airplanes or other modes of transport, as well as in public spaces when we belong to a vulnerable population, can help keep everyone safe.
It is critical that public health officials continue to "track and monitor communities to determine the spread of the virus," Pelzman said. Before you travel, find out about the COVID positivity rates and vaccination percentages for your destination.
The coronavirus isn't the first new virus outbreak, and it probably won't be the last either. We do know, however, that wearing masks when we cannot safely move away from others can protect us from contagion and the spread of infection. Continuing this habit of masking yourself in certain situations could help manage your risk of widespread disease across the board.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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