During the pandemic, we learned that face masks are a very efficient tool to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 because they help contain the spread of respiratory droplets, the main means of infection.
While we still haven’t achieved herd immunity, scientists are already thinking about how using the face mask could prove beneficial after the pandemic. The HuffPost spoke to experts who explained how and when to disguise might be appropriate, even after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.
During flu season, if you are sick
Good mask compliance did more than protect against the coronavirus: last year we saw the lowest number of influenza infections in recorded history.
Like COVID-19, the flu is a respiratory virus that is spread by inhaling infected droplets. Many public health guidelines on coronaviruses would also apply to the flu: wash your hands, stay home if you feel sick, and wear a mask if you cannot safely get away from others at home. inside.
“Masking is always good in protecting people from respiratory illnesses: if you are the infected person, you are less likely to pass the infection on to someone else,” said Bernard Camins, medical director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai Health System.
Camins noted that our “Cover your cough” pre-pandemic public health message may not go far enough. Instead, advice going forward should include telling people to stay home if they are sick, and wearing a mask if they experience symptoms and cannot stay home.
When you want protection in crowded indoor spaces
We have learned that close contact with others in poorly ventilated spaces is the fastest way to spread the virus. Even after COVID-19, we will put ourselves at risk of contracting respiratory infections – from the flu to the common cold – whenever we find ourselves in crowded indoor spaces.
It might be a good idea to mask some of these circumstances for added protection, said Fred Pelzman, general internist and associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
“When you’re with a lot of people you don’t know in a situation with confined air that isn’t recirculated, I think masks will continue to be important,” Pelzman told HuffPost, naming theaters crowded, school auditoriums, indoor sports arenas. and public transport as examples of spaces in which distancing can be difficult.
As technology improves and we learn more, we might see improvements to indoor ventilation systems and protective measures that could make indoor spaces safer overall. Currently, schools, stadiums, bars and restaurants have used temperature checks and / or rapid tests to screen for people who wish to enter indoors. Both methods have limits to their accuracy, but over time we might see changes that lead to greater efficiency, Pelzman said.
When there are new variants of COVID-19 or when your immunity is weaker
COVID-19 will probably never go away completely. Even if we achieve collective immunity – which gives us strong protection against the virus – it will continue to exist in the population. And, just like the flu, it will continue to mutate, with new variants emerging.
Data shows that vaccines provide robust immunity for at least six months, but it’s still unclear how long the protection will stay after that. Scientists work on Pfizer and Moderna booster shots, and they say we might need it within 12 months of the first vaccination.
“Because there are still examples of ‘vaccine breakthroughs’ – cases in which vaccinated people contract the virus – and due to reluctance to vaccinate, there are still vulnerable people, the virus could continue to spread. to spread and evolve with new variations, ”Camins said.
In the face of these unknown risks, universal masking could help protect us from the spread of the virus as new variants emerge until we get booster shots.
Traveling or near populations at risk
Vaccination rates and cases of COVID-19 infections currently vary widely between regions of the United States and between countries. Until we achieve worldwide herd immunity – the timeframe for which there is still a question mark – we are potentially exposing vulnerable populations who are not yet vaccinated when we travel from low risk areas to high risk. Wearing masks on planes or other modes of transportation, as well as in public spaces if we are part of an at-risk population, can help keep everyone safe.
It is essential that public health officials continue to “track and monitor communities for the prevalence of the virus,” Pelzman said. And before you travel, check out the COVID positivity rates and vaccination percentages for your destination.
The coronavirus is not the first new viral outbreak and it is unlikely to be the last. But we do know that wearing masks when we cannot safely distance ourselves from others can help protect us from the infection contracting and spreading. Pursuing this habit of hiding in certain situations could help manage the risk of widespread disease down the line.