Do you still need to wear a mask after COVID-19 vaccine? Yes, experts say. Here's why.

Korin Miller
·5-min read
Tourists emjoy downtown Savannah, Georgia on March 3, 2021 during Spring break amid the Covid-19 pandemic. - Fully vaccinated people can start traveling again if they take precautions such as wearing a mask and observing social distancing, US health authorities said on April 2. Travel is picking up again in the US, especially due to spring break and Easter trips, after all but shutting down completely in the early months of the pandemic. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)
Masked and unmasked people in Savannah, Ga., during spring break. The CDC advises that those who are fully vaccinated should still take COVID-19 precautions like wearing a mask in public. (Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is one important step toward a return to normalcy, but there are a few things about post-vaccination life that can feel like an adjustment for some people after months of taking precautions. One in particular may be puzzling: Why do you still need to wear a mask if you've been vaccinated?

Experts say the answer is a little more complicated than most people realize. Here's what you need to know.

What does it mean to be fully vaccinated, again?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you are considered fully vaccinated when you meet one of the following requirements:

  • It's been two weeks since your second shot in a two-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or

  • It’s been two weeks after you had a single-dose vaccine, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

If you don't meet one of those requirements, you are not yet considered fully vaccinated.

What has the CDC said about wearing a mask when you're fully vaccinated?

This is where things get a little tricky. The CDC says you should still take COVID-19 precautions like wearing a mask in the following situations:

  • In public

  • When you gather with unvaccinated people from more than one other household

  • When you visit with an unvaccinated person who is at increased risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, or who lives with a person who is at increased risk

  • When you travel

However, the CDC says you don’t need to wear a mask in the following situations:

  • When you're around other fully vaccinated people

  • When you're around unvaccinated people from one other household who are considered at low risk for severe complications from COVID-19

Video: CDC director advocates for continued mask wearing

So why do you still need to wear a mask?

Experts say there are a few different things going on. "Vaccinated people might still be able to transmit the virus," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.

In mid-March, Pfizer announced that its vaccine is 94 percent effective at preventing asymptomatic infection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. "Although the risk is low, it isn't zero," Watkins points out.

There are also variants of COVID-19 that may be able to diminish the effectiveness of the vaccines to some degree, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. In other words, variants may increase the odds that you'll get sick if you're exposed to the virus. However, Adalja says, "there is increasingly strong evidence against that."

The vaccines aren't perfect either, Adalja points out. The Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective, the Moderna vaccine is 94.1% effective and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 66.3% effective at preventing infection, and until more people are vaccinated and the virus is circulating less, there will continue to be a risk of contracting the virus. 

But it's also just difficult, from an enforcement standpoint, to say that some people can wear masks while others can't. "You can't expect someone in, say, McDonald's to tell who is vaccinated and who is not, to enforce mask wearing," Adalja says. "It's not something that you can operationalize in a way that makes sense. It's impossible to distinguish who is vaccinated by looking at someone."

It’s not entirely clear when it will be considered OK for people who are fully vaccinated to stop wearing masks, but experts say a greater portion of the population will need to be vaccinated. "These recommendations will lift once we cross some threshold,” Adalja says.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in early March that the U.S. shouldn't ease COVID-19 restrictions until the number of new coronavirus cases falls below 10,000 daily, and "maybe even considerably less than that." The seven-day moving average of new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of April 3 was 64,001 new cases a day, per CDC data.

If the U.S. hits less than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 a day, "we will be pulling back," Fauci said in early March, adding, "We're now up to about 2 million vaccinations per day. That means every day that goes by, every week that goes by, you have more and more people protected." On Saturday, the U.S. hit a new record of administering over 4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in one day.

Ultimately, Adalja says, mask recommendations will "probably fade away once significantly more of the population is vaccinated."

Correction: This story was originally published on April 5, 2020 at 2:23 p.m. ET and incorrectly stated the Pfizer vaccine is 94 percent effective at preventing asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2. It has been updated to reflect that the Pfizer vaccine is 94 percent effective at preventing asymptomatic infection of SARS-CoV-2.

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