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Will we ever need to go back to wearing masks after mandates are lifted?

“I do think that over the next few weeks, I think it’s going to be reasonable to lift mask mandates,” Dr. Ashish Jha said on TODAY.

As COVID-19 cases fall around the country, several states are easing or repealing mask mandates.

States including California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Oregon have loosened mask-wearing rules recently, and some mega events such as the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in California will not require masks at all. Some schools are also loosening mask mandates for students, although many districts still require them.

“We’re moving toward a time when COVID isn’t a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat,” Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said in a Feb. 16 briefing. “The president and our COVID team are actively planning for this future.”

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates falling around the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it may soon issue updated guidance about masks. 

Many people may welcome the easing of mask rules, but others may wonder if it’s the right time to lift restrictions. 

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, joined TODAY Thursday to weigh in on falling COVID-19 case numbers, and why he thinks it’s “a reasonable time” to reconsider mask-wearing rules.

Why Jha thinks it may be ‘reasonable’ to lift mask mandates in the next few weeks

COVID-19 case numbers are falling, with this week’s seven-day daily average of cases down 40% over the previous week. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is also down 28% since last week, according to the White House’s recent briefing.

In light of these trends, “I do think that over the next few weeks, I think it’s going to be reasonable to lift mask mandates,” Jha said. “Infections … are dropping precipitously, hospital capacity has gotten better, deaths are going to get much better in the next few weeks.”

What about in schools?

In Jha’s view, loosening mask mandates makes sense for schools.

“First of all, all school-aged kids can now get vaccinated, so that’s good news,” he said, referring to the fact that the Pfizer-BioNTech is now authorized for kids five years and older.

With infections falling around the U.S., Jha added that thinks it’s “pretty reasonable” to ease mask requirements in educational settings.

Other experts have urged patience for now. Aaron Milstone, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told previously told TODAY that masking decisions should come down to local COVID-19 rates, vaccination rates and each family's health situation.

Will we ever go back to wearing masks again? 

Once mask rules are lifted, the question on many people’s minds may be: Will we ever have to start wearing masks again?

Jha cautioned that as states lift mask mandates, they should be transparent about the fact that masks could be required again in the future if there is another surge in infections.

“I think communication here is key,” he said. “When we lift mask mandates now, we should make it clear that if there is another surge, if there is another variant, we’re going to ask people to put their masks back on for a short period of time. 

“I think if we telegraph that very quickly, very carefully and clearly, I think people are going to be pretty reasonable and be willing to do that again,” he added.

This echoes the message sent by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, in the White House’s recent COVID-19 briefing.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” she said. “If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly, and it will be based on the data and the science.”

She added that “there are still very important times to continue to wear your mask.”

This includes if you are feeling symptomatic or unwell, she said, or if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and are quarantining, or if you have tested positive for the virus within the past 10 days.

Will a mask protect me even if no one else is wearing one?

Even if masks are no longer required in public, some people may choose to continue wearing them on busy trains or other crowded public spaces.

Jha said that masks can provide protection even if you are the only person in a crowd wearing one.

“If you’re wearing a high-quality mask, it actually provides a very high degree of protection,” he said. “Especially if you couple that with somebody who is vaccinated and boosted, you can really protect yourself even if everybody else around you isn’t masked up.”

Is the worst definitely over?

Two years into the pandemic, people may be wondering if the COVID-19 is finally waning, or if there could be new, dangerous variants still on the horizon. 

Long story short, we don’t know, Jha said.

“I mean, we all want to believe that every future variant will be less and less severe,” he said. “Not necessarily the case. So we’ll have to see what Mother Nature throws at us and we’ll just have to get ready for it.”

He also said that as long as a large percentage of Americans remains unvaccinated — just under 65% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC — future surges will be likely.

“It’s going to be very hard if you have a chunk of Americans who just do not get vaccinated,” he said. “We’re going to see more surges, we’re going to see more hospitals filling up. So that will continue to be a problem. That’s why I believe that vaccine mandates actually make a lot of sense. But also just engaging with people and over time working with them to figure out how to make them more comfortable with getting vaccinated.”