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Seeking advice: After I get the vaccine, can I throw all my masks in the trash?

masks herd immunity
Photo via Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The coronavirus vaccine has forced us to adapt to a new normal. One day, if people take precautions and wear their masks and get the vaccine when it’s available, perhaps the new normal will revert back to the way things used to be.

Until then, you might have questions about how you’re supposed to live your life in this new world. Hopefully, we can give you the answers. 

So, as we do our best Dear Abby and/or Ask Ann Landers impression, let’s answer the query that’s most on your mind. 

Q: Thank goodness the coronavirus vaccines are here. I know that I probably can’t get vaccinated until next spring, but when I do, I can’t wait to take all my masks and throw them in the trash for good. I mean, I’m being a little dramatic with that scenario, but is there any truth to that? Once we’re vaccinated, can we get rid of the masks? 

A: Indeed, it’s great news that the Pfizer vaccine is already being distributed and given to patients in the U.K. and the U.S., and it’s even better that, by perhaps the time you read this, the Food and Drug Administration could have granted emergency use authorization to the Moderna version. After nine months of the pandemic, it’s amazing that people are beginning to see the potential for regular life to resume.

But as Robert Frost once wrote, there are still many miles to go before we can sleep. And people can’t get lax on their mask-wearing.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said in September, life won’t return to normal just because people are receiving the vaccine. 

“The vaccine availability will go a giant step to controlling the infection, but you’re not going to completely eradicate it or eliminate it,” Fauci said. “It will allow us to more quickly and with less stringency get back to some degree of normal but it is not going to eliminate the need to be prudent and careful with our public health measures.”

Perhaps the biggest societal contribution people can continue to make is to wear masks, even if they’ve received a vaccine. That’s because you can spread the virus to others even if you’re asymptomatic and don’t know you’ve even been infected by COVID-19. As the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “We wear masks for two reasons: to protect ourselves, and to protect others.” The vaccine doesn’t protect you 100% from the virus. Neither do masks. But getting the vaccine AND wearing a mask will make it awfully difficult for the virus to infect you and infect others. 

“The vaccine is probably the most important tool we have right now in controlling this pandemic, but it’s not perfect and it’s not a magic bullet that can end this for good right away,” Neal Goldstein, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University, told the Inquirer. “… It’s going to take months, not weeks, but at the same time also not years, until we can end these mitigation measures. Not everyone can get vaccinated, not everyone will get vaccinated, and we’re still learning about the vaccination, so everything else we’ve been doing all along is still so important.”

Experts say that 70% of people will have had to be vaccinated or will have had to already be infected and recovered from COVID-19 before the country can reach herd immunity

Until then, people will still have to wear masks. It’s one of the only ways to get through the pandemic. 

If you missed last week, we answered a question about what you should do if your family refuses to wear a mask around you during holiday gatherings. If you choose not to see people in person during the Christmas break, you can still visit with them virtually. Here are some ideas on how to accomplish that. 

Written by Josh Katzowitz