How long will we need to wear masks? Here's what experts predict

Even as vaccines are deployed, the majority of the population would need to be protected against COVID-19 before mask-wearing could safely stop.

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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.

However, some situations may already be safer: 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.

Experts said that masks in outdoor settings may also be less necessary as we head into the summer.

"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."

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. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said that while anyone over the age of 16 will be eligible for vaccination by April 19, the coronavirus would need to be less prevalent before masking could stop. However, some states are removing their mask mandates, which could prolong the course of the pandemic.

"... I think we are not going to be wearing masks any less anytime soon if people are going to continue to behave the way they're currently behaving," Kraft said at the end of 2020. "I would say we have at least another year at the rate we're going ... But that has to do with the effort that we're sort of seeing in the public. The more people that are just refusing to wear masks and making this an issue of personal freedom, I think the longer we're going to be wearing masks. The longer we can't get it done, the longer that the pandemic rages on."

Kraft 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 the trend will continue as a social norm.

"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."

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