According to The New York Times’s vaccine tracker, around 155 million people in America have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. With more and more folks getting vaccinated, the end of the pandemic finally seems to be within reach. But still, after more than a year of wearing a mask to do pretty much anything outside of our homes, lots of people (*raises hand*) are wondering if masks should continue to be part of our lives—especially in crowded, indoor spaces like on planes or other public transportation.
So, we turned to an expert—specifically, a doctor, Vivek Cherian, MD, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. Dr. Cherian tells us, “What we should do and what we will actually do as a society with regards to masks in a post-pandemic world are more than likely going to be different questions, for the short term at least.”
The Newest CDC Guidelines Are a Step in the Right Direction
On a positive note, he says that the CDC's most recent guidelines for vaccinated people should come as very good news. “It means we are finally making strides towards returning to normalcy as we knew it pre-pandemic,” Dr. Cherian notes. “However, as a society, we are driven by social norms, and wearing a mask has become a social norm for the most part, so initial hesitancy is expected. I have no doubt that will turn, when exactly, remains to be seen.”
Doctors Are Confident in the Vaccine's Efficacy
Personally, Dr. Cherian is very comfortable with the protection the vaccine provides. He notes, “The most recent and up to date science and data is telling us that if you are vaccinated you are going to be extremely well protected from this virus whether you are indoors or outdoors.” It’s also reassuring, he adds, that the vaccine has been shown to be effective against variants of the virus as well. “And even in the unlikely event you do get a breakthrough infection and you do not have any symptoms, the likelihood of transmitting this virus to somebody else is extremely low,” he says.
OK, but seeing as not everyone is choosing to get the vaccine, many vaccinated people are still hesitant about being in crowded indoor areas (notably, planes) when the time comes for airlines to drop their mask mandates. So, we had to ask: Once the pandemic is over (more on that in a second), would Dr. Cherian feel comfortable forgoing a mask? Yes. “Personally (given I am vaccinated),” he says, “I would be comfortable going on public transportation without a mask after the pandemic is over.”
What Will it Mean for the Pandemic to Be "Over?"
What defines the pandemic as being over, though, is a bit more complicated. He notes that the pandemic would be considered “over” once we have a large enough percentage of people vaccinated in the country. “We don’t know what level we need in order to get to a herd immunity, but likely will be somewhere in the range of 70 to 85 percent of the population being vaccinated.” When will that happen? Dr. Cherian notes that “We currently are on track to have at least 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4th.”
Still, Dr. Cherian is hopeful, noting, “The science and data tell us that you will be at an extremely low level of risk if you are vaccinated, and ultimately I anticipate the CDC will update its guidance in the coming months regarding travel as a larger percentage of our society becomes vaccinated.”
Moving Forward, It Will Likely Be About Personal Choice
In the end, Dr. Cherian admits, mask-wearing post-pandemic will likely come to a personal choice. “There may be certain groups of people (the elderly for example) who, even if vaccinated, may still feel safer wearing a mask to just add an extra level of protection. Even though the risk is exceedingly low when vaccinated, it will come down to your own risk tolerance. Whatever decision you make to travel with or without a mask will be the right decision as long as it works for you and your family.”
You heard it here, folks.