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

Even as a vaccine is deployed, the majority of the population would need to be protected against COVID-19 before mask-wearing could stop.

Experts say it might be possible that masking becomes a more general cultural norm, especially during cold and flu season.Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/TODAY / Getty Images

The news of several potential coronavirus vaccines offers hope for the end of the pandemic, but experts caution that we may still be wearing masks and employing other guidelines, like social distancing, for at least another year.

The major factor will be how quickly a vaccine can be administered. The companies developing these vaccines have offered optimistic timelines, but some experts have urged caution about how long the process may take.

"I think the news is encouraging, but it is a ways away, between proving that the vaccine would work and getting it authorized and being able to deliver it to enough people that it makes a difference," said Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, citing difficulties like the vaccine likely requiring multiple doses to be effective. "I'm thinking that hopefully by next winter we'll have a decent level of coverage in the general population that we can make that happen."

Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said that while the vaccine might be available to the majority of the population within a year, the coronavirus would need to be less prevalent before masking could stop.

"... 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. "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, Ph.D., a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a trained epidemoioglost who predicted in April 2019 that mask-wearing would continue until at least the spring of 2020, said that she believes the trend will continue as a social norm even as vaccines begin to be distributed.

"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."

Kachur said that it's possible that masking might have to resume periodically if the coronavirus winds up evolving and needing a new vaccine each year, like the flu does.

"We may need to (wear masks and update the vaccine) hopefully not every year but potentially on a regular basis in order to keep ahead of changes the virus is making," he said.

All three experts said it might be possible that masking becomes a more general cultural norm, especially during cold and flu season.

"That would be something, as an infectious disease physician, that I would be very excited about," said Kraft. "We are learning, for better or for worse, about things such as how to protect ourselves, how to not come to work if we're sick, how to wear protective equipment when others are sick or when we're sick ourselves. The masks are really about source control and about protecting ourselves, so I definitely think we will see more masking wearing when people don't feel well ... And that would be a good thing."