Nearly 1 in 4 adults in the United States has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but experts caution that we may still be wearing masks and employing other guidelines, like social distancing, for some time.
The major factor in how long we will be wearing masks for is how long it will take to reach herd immunity, where enough of the population is protected against the virus, before it would be safe to be maskless, especially in indoor settings with large groups of people.
"I think that it's going to be many months before we see people not wearing masks in indoor congregate settings," said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
How long will we be wearing masks indoors?
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that people who are fully vaccinated can gather together, in private indoor settings, without worrying about masking or other precautions. Fully vaccinated people can also safely gather indoors with unvaccinated people so long as those people are from the same household. If fully vaccinated people want to gather with unvaccinated people from more than one household, they should employ masks, social distancing or other precautions, or congregate outside.
However, to stop wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, like a supermarket, office building or school, experts said they would want to see a major reduction in cases and transmission.
"It's more about how much transmission we're seeing in the community ... I hesitate to put a firm number on this, because I think there are a lot of different considerations that go into this," Dowdy said. He added that it will also be important for kids to get vaccinated if coronavirus vaccines are approved for use in children.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said that masks are still important because tens of thousands of coronavirus cases are being diagnosed daily.
"While there's wonderful news and we're getting more and more people vaccinated every single day, we still had 57,000 cases of COVID yesterday. We still had 733 deaths," Walensky told TODAY.
How long will we be wearing masks outside?
While masking may be common indoors for a while, experts said that masks in outdoor settings may also be less necessary as we head into the summer. A study from Oxford University found that COVID-19 transmission in indoor venues was 19 times higher than it was in outdoor settings.
"Masks have always been a little debatable if you're in the great outdoors," said Dr. Sten Vermund, a pediatrician and dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut. "... If you're by yourself and you're not in the crowd, using a mask outdoors is not a particularly effective public health prevention strategy because you're not putting anybody at risk anyway, but if you're at a protest march or rally, then you have an abundant opportunity to impact others, so the context of outdoor activity is very important."
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, told TODAY that outdoor mask mandates might safely be lifted soon.
"I think anybody who wants to obviously should continue to wear a mask," said Jha. "... I'm not aware of any case in the entire pandemic where somebody walking by somebody, running by somebody, infected another person. It's just sort of not how infections work. You have to have sustained exposure for some period of time, and so I know it feels uncomfortable for a lot of folks but I think we're going to see a lifting of the outdoor mask mandates, and it's probably OK from a safety point of view."
Do I need to wear a mask after being vaccinated?
Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta also said that since the vaccine takes some time to become effective and requires two doses, people who receive the vaccine will need to continue to wear masks.
"We want to make sure our immune system has time to work and develop against (the virus), so it's not a magic bullet as soon as you take it," she explained.
Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a trained epidemiologist told TODAY in November that she believes masking will continue as a social norm, especially as the vaccine rollout continues.
"It's going to be really hard for people to tell apart who has been vaccinated, who hasn't, and who just isn't wearing a mask because they don't want to," she explained. "I would say that until the vaccine is widely available and case counts drop as you would expect with high vaccination coverage, we'll be wearing masks."
Vermund agreed, saying that the pandemic may have made it "more socially acceptable" for people to wear masks, which can protect against things like influenza viruses, rhinoviruses and more.
"There's a very big list of respiratory pathogens that are parading around us in the wintertime, and if people feel more comfortable now with masks because they're used to it, then that could be a benefit in the flu season," Vermund said. "... I just hope that there's no stigma anymore to someone wearing a mask. ... People wear masks to protect themselves, to avoid getting sick, so I'm hoping that our attitude towards mask-wearers is extremely tolerant, going forward."
This story was updated on April 22, 2021.