Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed what the science has been telling us all along about the effectiveness of face masks — that they’re currently our best bet at getting a handle on the coronavirus pandemic.
They make such a difference, in fact, that some experts suspect they’ll be just as reliable – if not more – as a vaccine when it comes to blunting the spread of COVID-19.
“These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have, and I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings,” Redfield said during a recent Senate hearing.
Redfield went onto to say that masks may offer more of a guarantee than a vaccine. President Donald Trump later shut down the comments, but the medical community stood behind Redfield.
Because the vaccines are still in clinical trials, it’s currently unclear how effective they’ll be. It’s thought they may trigger an immune response in about 70% of people, rendering some vaccinated people unprotected. Other vaccinated people may not get sick but carry the infection and contribute to community spread, and who knows when we’ll have enough doses for everyone.
The end goal here is herd immunity, and to achieve that we’ll need enough of the population to be immune to COVID-19, either through a highly effective vaccine or by beating the infection itself.
Long story short: There are way too many unknowns to start taking our masks off soon. Until we have more data, health experts say masks are a must for a while. Here’s why we’re still going to need to wear masks well into 2021:
We won’t have enough doses of the vaccine at first
The main reason masks aren’t going away anytime soon is because there’s going to be a super limited supply of vaccines when it first becomes available.
Those initial doses are likely going to go right to the people who need protection most: at-risk health care workers, the elderly, people with serious underlying health conditions and first responders. The rest of the population in the United States will have to wait, mask on, until there’s enough to go around.
On top of that, the vaccine will probably be administered in two doses about 21 to 28 days apart. According to Kawsar Talaat, an assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, that means it’ll take people about six to eight weeks to fully develop an immune response. People could still theoretically get sick after just the first dose, so mask-wearing will be crucial in between shots.
Similar to the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccine won’t completely shield you from the disease
Though it’s still unclear how effective the vaccine will be, experts suspect it’ll invoke an immune response in about 70% of the population. The efficacy could be as low as 50%. (For context, these figures are similar to the flu shot.) Of course, there’s also a chance the protection percentage may be higher.
Basically, some people’s bodies just won’t respond to the vaccine and they mind wind up getting sick anyway; others may be totally fine.
But keep in mind that there are a ton of vaccines being tested right now. While the first one may not be foolproof, some of the others approved in 2021 may be better. So far, it appears that mutation of the coronavirus into different strains isn’t a major concern, which is potentially good news for a vaccine.
“I really hope we can get a vaccine that’s better than 70%. If it’s not the first-generation vaccine, at least maybe the second generation vaccine,” Talaat said.
This doesn’t mean that the vaccine is useless. The goal of the vaccine actually isn’t to prevent an infection entirely, but to reduce the severity of disease. We want more people to get less sick from COVID-19. This is also what the flu shot does every year.
It’s a bit out of reach to expect the vaccine to prevent infection entirely, according to Talaat. This means that even vaccinated people could contribute to community spread if they stop wearing a mask.
“So, theoretically, somebody could have the virus in their nose and potentially spread it to somebody who’s more vulnerable without ever knowing,” Talaat said.
On top of that, we don’t know how long the vaccine’s protection, or durability, will last quite yet.
“Masks will be important until we know some of this information,” Talaat added.
Masks are going to be important for quite some time, according to experts. ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images
People are feeling iffy about the vaccine
Then there’s the whole issue of people feeling skeptical about the vaccine.
Inconsistent messaging during the pandemic has eroded people’s trust in our public heath system. One poll found that two-thirds of the population probably wouldn’t get vaccinated even if they could. It’s going to take a lot of education and reassurance to get people on board.
“I think it will take time for people to accept this vaccine. They will need to observe that there aren’t a whole lot of bad adverse effects from the people who get the vaccine before they’re willing to trust it,” Talaat said.
According to Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine with University of California San Francisco, we may not need the entire population to get vaccinated.
“It’ll naturally slow down once enough people get the vaccine,” Gandhi said. Even if just 60 to 70% of people were protected, it would help us greatly reduce community transmission.
Masks could help close the gap. “Models show that 70, or even better, 80% of the population wearing masks could reduce transmission and symptomatic disease … down to almost zero,” Gandhi said.
In other words, we should embrace masks for a while
We know masks work.
Lots of data has come out in recent weeks pointing to their effectiveness. One experiment found that the spread of hundreds of respiratory droplets can be blunted by mask-wearing. Another report found that areas with mask mandates had slower COVID-19 growth rates compared to places with no mask requirements.
There are also two documented real-world scenarios showing us that masks really do keep us safe. On an international flight, none of the 25 people sitting near a masked man infected with COVID-19 got sick. In Missouri, two hairstylists were diagnosed with COVID-19 but ultimately did not pass it onto to any of their clients because everyone wore masks.
In other words, it’d be wise to hang on to our masks. It’s going to take all kinds of efforts to bring community transmission down — masks, social distancing and an effective vaccine.
So, how much longer of mask-wearing are we looking at? Gandhi suspects we’ve got at least another year of it. “I would say that all of our population has to mask until we get community transmission down to an acceptable, extremely low level,” Gandhi said.
A vaccine will come and it will help, but masks are also our best bet for a while.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.