For two years, health officials stressed the importance of wearing masks when spending time indoors in order to help lower the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. That guidance has been especially important during the fall and winter months when more people head indoors and respiratory viruses like COVID are known to thrive.
But as the pandemic appears to be winding down and case numbers and hospitalizations decline, what is the current rule of thumb surrounding mask wearing for this fall and winter? Are masks still necessary? Where and when should they be worn? And will it even be possible to get people to start wearing masks again, when many have stopped donning them altogether and very few businesses require them?
With the fall season just around the corner and COVID cases expected to tick up again, here's a closer look at what experts suggest regarding mask wearing for the months ahead.
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The Current COVID Data
The latest data shows that by this point, most people have gotten vaccinated and boosted. What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracking efforts show that COVID cases have generally been on the decline since the middle of July and hospitalizations are also dropping across the country. Currently, about 350 people are dying in the country each week from the virus, according to the CDC.
Additionally, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, MD, said in a virtual press conference earlier this month that “the end is in sight” in reference to the pandemic.
Still, these declarations don’t paint a complete picture of the current reality, William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Health. Dr. Schaffner said there are likely far more COVID cases in the U.S. than are being officially reported given that most people are testing themselves at home—if they even decide to test themselves at all.
"The virus is still here," said Dr. Schaffner, who's hardly alone in such sentiments.
In fact, not only is COVID still here, some experts say the virus continues to be easily transmissible.
“It’s incredibly contagious right now,” Reynold Panettieri, Jr., MD, professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and director of the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine & Science, told Health.
Mutations such as the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, are a large part of the reason why the virus remains so contagious. These variants are circulating heavily at the moment, Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.
"Because of the evolution of immune evasive variants, COVID remains highly contagious," Dr. Adalja said adding, however, that the virus is now "much more manageable than at earlier time points."
Why Might You Consider Masking Still?
Health experts now have two years of data surrounding the COVID virus and its trends, and this data shows that cases of the virus tend to increase and spike in fall and winter months, Dr. Schaffner said. Translation: We’re now headed into prime COVID season.
"There is a concern that, as we go indoors during the cooler weather, that there may be an increase in transmission," Dr. Schaffner said. "We still need to protect ourselves against COVID."
One of the most significant forms of protection is ensuring that you're up to date on COVID vaccinations, Dr. Schaffner said. "The vaccines are superb but not perfect," he said.
Yet another line of defense is using masks during the coming months.
Dr. Schaffner, who says mask protection is also not perfect, compares their usage to a series of Swiss cheese slices. "Each slice is a barrier, but it's not perfect, so we add another slice," he said. "The thickest slice is the vaccines against COVID, but masks are another good slice."
However, experts admit that using a mask this fall and winter will likely be a personal choice, one that comes down to the individual and comfort level in the face of COVID.
"Each individual has to decide what level of risk is tolerable to them—that is never one-size fits all," Dr. Adalja said.
Still, people who are immunocompromised, older Americans, and those who are otherwise at risk for developing severe disease if they contract COVID may want to be extra cautious and use a mask, Dr. Panettieri advised.
"It's all about your immunity," he said. "If you've gotten vaccinated and boosted, the likelihood for significant infection causing hospitalization, an emergency room visit, or death is vanishingly small."
It’s also worth noting that CDC data shows unvaccinated Americans have a five times higher risk of dying from COVID compared to people who recently got their primary vaccination series. These same individuals also have a seven times higher risk of dying from the virus compared to people who have gotten at least one booster dose. Meaning, if you’re not vaccinated and don’t intend to be vaccinated, wearing a mask, particularly during fall and winter, is the next-best way to protect yourself.
There’s also the convenience factor to consider, given that COVID isolation recommendations are still in place, Dr. Schaffner said. So, if you can’t risk being out of work or stuck at home for five days in the event you contract COVID, it may be best to mask when indoors.
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Where Should You Wear a Mask Specifically?
While this is another question that is really up to individuals, it's important to bear in mind that you can technically pick up COVID just about anywhere. But Dr. Schaffner notes that crowded indoor spaces are the places where you're at highest risk of getting the virus. "You may want to consider wearing masks indoors when you do larger group activities," Dr. Schaffner said.
That includes activities such as going to indoor concerts, grocery shopping, and religious services, Dr. Schaffner said.
Overall, however, Dr. Adalja stressed that COVID is transitioning to more of an outpatient illness and is a respiratory virus for which there are now many tools to address.
Even with that said, Dr. Adalja added; "COVID will always cause a baseline number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths."
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.