Here's why you should wear a mask even after getting COVID-19 or the vaccine
Getting a vaccine doesn't exempt you from mask-wearing and social distancing right now.
Katie TeagueWriter II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's important to continue following the protection guidelines in place while experts learn more about the protection the COVID-19 vaccines provide, the possibility of vaccinated people continuing to spread the disease and more about immunity and reinfection if someone has recovered from COVID-19.
Watch this: Will a COVID-19 vaccine be a triumph of science or soul-searching?
The COVID-19 vaccine may not give you full protection right away
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come in two doses -- the first shot starts building protection, while the second shot is needed to get the most protection the vaccine has to offer against the
, according to the CDC.
The first shot has been proven to be highly effective, Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer of Wexner Medical Center, told CNET. He said the second dose amplifies the protection and will extend the life of immunity.
After you receive the second shot, your body needs time to build the protection needed to fight the virus. It could take up to two weeks for your COVID-19 vaccine to begin protecting you against the coronavirus, according to the CDC. During that time, it's important to keep yourself and those around you safe by continuing to socially distance and wear a mask when around people outside your household.
You could still spread COVID-19, even after getting vaccinated
Because the coronavirus and COVID-19 vaccine are both so new, there's not enough evidence at this point to know if people can still carry the coronavirus pathogens and pass them along to others without being infected themselves.
"This gives enough time for the virus to grow in the respiratory passages and spread the infection to others, all while the body is fighting its own infection, aided by the vaccine," Gonsenhauser told CNET.
"While the vaccine is highly effective, there's still a slim chance -- 5 to 10% -- that after someone gets vaccinated, they could become infected," Gonsenhauser said. However, more data could become available as scientists and doctors learn more about the effects of the vaccine on COVID-19.
Until experts fully understand the protection a COVID-19 vaccine provides, it's important to continue wearing a mask and following social distancing protocols, the CDC says. This can help prevent the coronavirus spread among communities of people until more of the population is vaccinated against the coronavirus.
"The bigger concern is someone becoming reinfected with the same variant of COVID-19, not getting sick themselves, but still being contagious to others. You can get infected twice and be asymptomatic the second time around, and still carry it and transmit it to other more vulnerable people around you," said John V. Williams, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.
Unvaccinated people might think it's okay to stop wearing a mask
It's going to take months or longer for enough of the population to be vaccinated to start seeing case numbers go down substantially. Therefore, it's important to continue wearing masks whenever you're around people outside your household.
"If after getting vaccinated, people stop wearing their masks, other people who haven't been vaccinated could start thinking masks aren't necessary anymore," Gonsenhauser said of social behavior. If those unvaccinated people have the virus, they can spread it faster by not wearing a mask.
People in smaller groups are less likely to wear masks when together, according to a Vox survey first published in November. Thirty two percent of respondents said they don't wear a mask when attending a sit-down gathering.
Some may be wrongly concerned that the vaccine was developed too quickly to be safe. Both vaccines in the US have undergone extensive clinical trials and have been proven to be 94% and 95% effective, well over the 90% efficacy threshold required.
While a vaccine won't completely stop the pandemic in its tracks, it's the direct route to herd immunity. However, in order to get there, more people will need to get the coronavirus vaccine. And, due to a limited number of doses, not everyone is able to get the coronavirus vaccine all at once. In fact, depending on which group you're in, you may be waiting until at least April to get the vaccine, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert -- if not later.
If a significant portion of the population refuses to take the vaccine, we will likely not see numbers of new cases decrease as rapidly as we'd like, says Gonsenhauser. He says he and other medical providers are doing everything they can to remind people how safe the vaccine is -- from bringing relatable and accessible information to communities who have different oppositions to distrust the vaccine, to help them make better-informed decisions.
How much longer will I have to wear a mask and social distance? What needs to happen?
Currently, there's not enough information at this time to determine if or when the majority of the population can safely stop wearing masks and avoid close contact with others to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC says, but it will likely come down to the numbers.
When there are enough observable changes, such as cases dropping and the threat levels of community spread sharply falling. When that happens, medical experts can redetermine the need for mask-wearing. However, it could be well into 2021 before that happens.
"We would need to see a dramatic decrease in the number of new cases per 100,000 of the population after enough vaccines have been administered," Gonsenhauser said.
Watch this: Vaccines, antibody tests, treatments: The science of ending the pandemic
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.