But in both of these circumstances — and other physical contact scenarios, for that matter — Martinez says wearing a mask will still be an important factor in keeping everyone safe. “Having a mask on when you’re in public not only is going to protect you for respiratory droplets coming from other people, but can also keep you from touching your dirty hands to your mouth,” she says.
Will masks be a thing forever?
Almost every hypothetical post-vaccine scenario includes the continued need for face coverings. Indeed, despite erroneous comments from certain lawmakers, experts — including the CDC — agree that getting vaccinated isn’t grounds for tossing your face masks. In fact, they’ll probably be necessary for a while. “Mask-wearing is going to be with us until we know for certain that we have sufficient reduction in transmission afforded by the vaccine,” Martinez says. “Because, right now, we’re either going to be lucky and the vaccines are going to be doing that transmission-blocking for us [which data has yet to confirm], or we’re going to have to rely on essentially mechanical blocking of transmission, which is mask[s].”
It’s possible, Mansky says, that we’ll see a phasing out of masks in certain circumstances — like outdoor, distanced gatherings — if transmission does slow down. He estimates that could happen this fall or spring. “It’s not going to be a light switch, because we’re talking about public health, we’re talking about a virus, we’re talking about biology,” he says. “It just doesn’t flip from one to the other. It [will] be phases. People just have to be patient with it.”
There’s also a chance that a cultural shift will happen and mask-wearing will continue even after we reach herd-immunity from COVID-19. “It will be interesting to assess whether or not this changes the frequency of use [of] masks in general in the future,” Leen says. “They could reduce the spread of other infections, so we may see them continue to be commonplace.”
Will COVID always be part of our lives?
While we may speak fondly of “post-COVID” times, it’s unlikely this particular virus will completely disappear from our lives. “[Is it] possible to get rid of the virus in the human population, globally? I would say at this point, probably not,” Mansky says. “There [are] too many people infected now.”
But that doesn’t mean COVID will dominate our lives the way it does today, particularly after we reach herd immunity. “It is possible the illness will become similar to influenza, in that we will see outbreaks and may need to regularly receive some vaccination,” Leen says. “It can still be deadly, but at much lower numbers.”
With the flu, we need to get a new vaccine each year to combat the strains of the virus that experts think will be most present each winter. As for COVID, while there is already a new strain making its way around the world, “[the] data appearing thus far would suggest that the current additional strains that are circulating are not different enough that they’re not going to be recognized by the vaccine,” Mansky says.
Additionally, we don’t yet know how long immunity from the current vaccines will last. “There’s no science, there’s no data I can point to to say [that] once we’re vaccinated, we’re fine for five years, 10 years,” Mansky says. “We’ll just have to wait. The virus just emerged in the human population; it’s just been a year, so there’s simply not enough time [and] not enough data to say what’s going to happen five years from now, or 10 years from now. […] We have to count on the virologists, and the epidemiologists, and the other public health professionals to figure this out as time goes on.”