With more and more businesses requiring people to show proof of vaccination, you might question if it still makes sense to wear a mask if there’s a guarantee that everyone around you has also been fully vaccinated.
On one hand, if you’re in a place where you, a vaccinated person, are surrounded by people who’ve also been fully vaccinated, the risk of coronavirus transmission is likely pretty low. Evidence has shown that vaccinated people are significantly less likely to get infected and transmit COVID-19 compared to unvaccinated people.
But breakthrough cases are happening, and some vaccinated people who become infected will spread the virus to others, especially in their households.
“Being in a setting that requires proof of vaccination fo individuals to be indoors absolutely reduces the risk of transmission, but it does not completely eliminate it,” Shira Shafir, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told HuffPost.
Here’s what to know before deciding to shed your face covering:
Coronavirus risk is lower when people are vaccinated, but not zero.
As mentioned, being in a vaccine-only space doesn’t eliminate risk entirely. Shafir said the delta variant changed our thinking about the necessity of continuing protective health measures (like masks) among those who are fully vaccinated.
In the age of delta ― though fully vaccinated people are approximately five times less likely to get infected compared to unvaccinated people and less likely to spread the virus to others — they do still have the potential to transmit COVID-19 if they get sick. The vaccines are extremely protective, but they do not block 100% of cases.
“That means that when people are fully vaccinated and in a venue with people that are also all fully vaccinated, there is no guarantee that there won’t be transmission of the virus,” Shafir said.
But there is no doubt that mingling in a venue where all others have shown proof they’ve received both shots, and in some cases a booster, is much safer than spending time in a place where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are mixing.
A key difference between now and this time last year is that we are no longer seeing major super-spreading events like the ones that took place in 2020, said Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco. For that, we can thank the vaccines.
How should you decide whether or not you should mask?
Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies viruses in the air, said the No. 1 thing to consider when determining whether to mask up in a vax-proofed place is local transmission rates.
“If you are in an area with substantial or high transmission, then everybody should wear a mask,” Marr said. If you’re in an area with low or moderate transmission, you probably do not need a mask, she added.
According to metrics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have received mixed support from some infectious disease experts, low community transmission equals fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people. Moderate transmission equals up to 50 cases per 100,000 people and substantial transmission is anything more than that.
You can check caseloads in any county on the CDC’s website. Transmission in much of the country has recently slipped to low or moderate activity, but some pockets are still seeing substantial spread.
“If you are in an area with substantial or high transmission, then everybody should wear a mask.”
– Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech
You should also consider how many other people are nearby. Even if the setting, whether it be a restaurant, bar, gym or concert venue, is requiring everyone to show proof of vaccination, if there are a ton of people and there is substantial transmission in that community, there’s a higher likelihood that the virus could spread.
Ventilation plays a role, too, but it can be hard to asses how good the ventilation is in various locations. If the venue has shared what they’ve done to improve ventilation, like adding air filters or an HVAC system, there will be a lower risk of transmission. If you walk into a room and it feels stuffy and smelly, the ventilation is probably subpar and it could be a riskier situation that calls for a mask, Marr said.
Even if you don’t have to mask, you can still choose to mask.
Everyone is going to have a different comfort level and risk tolerance to participating in social events at this point.
Gandhi said she’d feel very comfortable being inside, unmasked, if everyone else around her had a vaccine. Marr said she feels comfortable being unmasked with a smaller group, up to 20 people or so, of fully vaccinated people. Shafir, who wants to protect her young child against infection, is choosing to skip certain unmasked indoor activities for now.
“If transmission is low or moderate, that means you don’t have to mask, but you still can mask,” Marr said.
It really comes down to your personal risk tolerance. People who are immunocompromised or susceptible to developing severe COVID can lower their risk by wearing a tight-fitting mask, even around people who’ve shown proof of vaccination. (The better the mask, the more protected you’ll be.) That’s true not just for COVID-19, but all the other respiratory viruses (like the flu) that circulate this time of year.
“If you have an immunocompromised person at home or you’re immunocompromised, while we’re still struggling through the end phase of this pandemic in the United States, why not wear a mask? That makes sense, to me, in places with higher rates of community transmission,” Gandhi said.