Apr 14, 2021 11:00 AM

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recognized face masks, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying home when sick as important tools in helping reduce the spread of Sars-CoV-2. Combined with COVID-19 vaccines, these practices will help reach herd immunity and eventually get us back to “normal.” But it’s too early to relax now.

Masking reduces disease spread

Wearing a face mask has shown to be effective in reducing the spread of the disease and virus. In Utah, this was reflected by monitoring the rolling seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases by county. Salt Lake County saw a significant decrease in coronavirus cases when it implemented a mask mandate on June 30, 2020. Those case trends continued to stay lower than the rest of the state, according to Erin Clouse, a strategic engagement manager at University of Utah Health, who tracks COVID-19 case trends in the state. Much of the country is still at high risk for COVID-19, and so masking remains important, she says. Masking has also contributed to low influenza activity and RSV cases across the United States, according to the CDC

The best news is for those who are fully vaccinated. The CDC updated its guidance on what you can do once you’ve been fully vaccinated, which includes visiting indoors without a mask with other fully vaccinated individuals and visiting indoors without a mask with one household of unvaccinated people who are not at risk for severe illness. But it’s still important to mask up when out in public and when around a large group of people who aren’t vaccinated.

Why it’s important to keep up COVID precautions

While COVID-19 vaccines have proven effective at preventing disease, we don’t yet know how well the vaccines prevent spread of the virus from one person to another. Studies are now underway, but until we know the answer—or until we reach herd immunity—it is better to mask to make sure everyone is protected.

That’s not the only reason to continue COVID-19 precautions in public. “The chance of getting infected with COVID-19 after vaccination is less than one percent, but it’s not zero,” says Emily Spivak, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. Spivak says wearing a mask takes that very small risk down to zero. 

Face masks will also help protect against virus variants of COVID-19, which spread more easily. According to the CDC, public health mitigation strategies are essential to limit the spread of COVID-19 and virus variants. “There’s a higher chance of getting infected from the virus if introduced to a virus variant,” says Jeanmarie Mayer, MD, hospital epidemiologist for U of U Heath. “Until we can get a high proportion of the population vaccinated, masks need to be worn.” 

Masks are most effective when everyone wears one. The risk of getting infected with COVID-19 increases when masks are taken off. “If there’s a mix of people masked and unmasked, your risk increases,” Spivak says. “Your risk goes up even more if you aren’t vaccinated.” The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere with other people around.

“We’ve worked so hard in this pandemic to create a safe work environment,” says Alison Flynn Gaffney, executive director of service lines, ancillary, and support services at U of U Health. It would be a shame to lose ground now, she adds. “Part of getting back to normal is mask compliance.”


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