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Should you wear a mask after being vaccinated? Yes, and here's why

The recent CDC guidance is confusing. Experts break it down.

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Vax or mask, as they say.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The CDC announced on May 13 that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not have to wear masks in most public spaces anymore. In this surprising and sudden step toward normalcy, many people are rejoicing. 

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," said Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, in a media briefing on May 13. "We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus is spread, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated."

This is a joyous announcement and a welcome turn of events, to be sure. However, there are some caveats to be aware of, which we explain here.

Who still needs to wear a mask in public? 

Everyone who is not considered fully vaccinated should still wear a mask in public places, including outdoor spaces that are crowded, such as an outdoor concert or sporting event. 

This means you should wear a mask in public if:

  • You have not received any doses of a COVID-19 vaccine
  • You have received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
  • You've received both doses of your Pfizer or Moderna vaccine but haven't passed the two-week post-vaccination mark yet
  • You've received your dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but haven't passed the two-week post-vaccination mark yet

Fully vaccinated people do not need to wear face masks in most public settings, according to the CDC. 

Do vaccinated people ever need to wear masks?

Disney World reopening guests face masks

Vaccinated people should still wear masks in certain settings, like crowded outdoor areas. 

Disney

Even vaccinated people still must wear masks in some settings. Yes, the CDC has stated that if you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask outdoors, as well as in most indoor spaces. 

However, "this does not apply to public transit hubs or transit such as airplanes, buses and trains, and other crowded indoor settings, where all individuals must wear masks regardless of vaccination status," says Dr. Andrea Love, immunologist, microbiologist and co-host of the Unbiased Science Podcast

"This also does not apply to healthcare settings," Dr. Love says. "Private businesses have the ability to implement their own mask policies as well [and] you need to continue to comply with mask-wearing based on other federal, state, local, tribal and business regulations."

Is it safe to stop wearing masks?

"There are endless hypothetical scenarios with risk levels that vary based on a number of factors including group size, indoor or outdoor setting and duration of exposure," says Dr. Jessica Steier, public health expert and co-host of the Unbiased Science Podcast. "Risks for spread of COVID-19 for unvaccinated people are affected by number of persons, proximity of persons, duration of exposure, presence or absence of masks, and ventilation." 

"As you add these contributing factors, even a previously low-risk activity can become higher risk. So if you're unvaccinated, mask-wearing is critical, as is being cognizant of the types of interactions you're having with others," Steier says.

If you're fully vaccinated, the CDC has deemed it safe to be maskless aside from a few especially high-risk situations such as crowded indoor settings, Dr. Steier continues. While it is still unlikely that a fully vaccinated person will be infected, protection is not perfect. Think of this like wearing a seatbelt: A seatbelt is a tool that provides incredible protection from severe injury but is not a 100% guarantee of no injury. Face masks are the same. 

Why vaccinated people still have to wear masks in some places

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Because there's no way to tell who's vaccinated and who's not, some settings require everyone to wear a mask. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Remember, businesses and other public establishments are largely relying on the honor system here. Now that vaccinated people can enter most places without a mask, unvaccinated people are bound to take advantage of the new CDC guidance and stop wearing masks because there's currently no way to tell who's vaccinated and who's not. 

On airplanes, for example, it's safest to simply make everyone wear a mask for the duration of the flight. Because people are in such close quarters and the US has no system for vaccination identification, airline operators are forced to assume some or all people on their flights aren't vaccinated. There's just no telling who, exactly. Thus, to minimize transmission, everyone should wear a mask. 

"There's been discussion of vaccine passports or a centralized vaccine registry which has been met with controversy from people who feel this infringes on our rights," Dr. Love says. "Proponents argue that there are many instances where we are required to show proof or have a license to do something, such as a license in order to drive a vehicle." 

Estonia, for example, has introduced a digital vaccine passport to support the country's response to COVID-19 pandemic; the secure vaccination certificate, called VaccineGuard, is issued through the country's national patient portal and is available immediately, enabling the country's citizens to cross borders with proof of vaccination status. Israel's "Green Pass" system is similar.

What about children? 

five children at a park outdoors wearing masks

It's still safest if children wear masks in public places.

Jordi Janau/Getty Images

Since children under 12 are not yet able to get the vaccine, it is imperative that we encourage children over the age of 2 to wear masks, particularly in schools and during school-related activities, says Dr. Steier. 

"In-school COVID-19 transmission is rare, even among close school contacts of those who test positive for the virus, when schools heed public health precautions such as mandatory universal masking, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, according to results of several studies conducted across the country," she says. 

Universal masking in school (including all children over the age of 2) is a main predictor of low in-school transmission, Dr. Steier explains. 

Now that the Pfizer vaccine is approved for emergency use in children 12 to 15 years old, more of the population can become vaccinated and reduce opportunities for virus transmission. However, even children in the 12-to-15 age group should still wear masks until they are fully vaccinated. 

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How to protect yourself and others if you aren't vaccinated

If you aren't vaccinated, all of the same COVID-19 precautions still apply. Unvaccinated people should still wear a mask in all public places, including crowded outdoor settings. Follow your state's public health guidelines to keep yourself and others safe. 

Precautions include wearing a mask (two if yours are single-layer masks), staying six feet apart from others and practicing good hand hygiene. 

Moving forward 

At this time, less than 40% of the US population is currently fully vaccinated, Dr. Love says. "We have pockets of outbreaks around the country, with new variants becoming dominant and leading to transmission among children, as well. While this new guidance is good news for individuals who may need incentives for vaccination, we also need to keep collective public health in mind."

This is especially paramount for people who cannot be vaccinated due to known severe allergies to vaccine ingredients, age or medical conditions, Dr. Love says. Everyone -- vaccinated or not -- should be mindful of these populations. 

Dr. Love says people who fall into these categories should continue to wear masks any time they are in public and should try to avoid high-risk situations such as indoor gatherings, especially for any prolonged period of time. 

"In the meantime, our emphasis should be on getting folks vaccinated who are eligible to do so to reduce the overall burden of COVID-19 and give the virus fewer opportunities to be transmitted," she emphasizes. 

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.