Josh Stewart: Now is not the time to let our masks down

April 18, 2021. The Daily Reflector.

2020 J. Bradley Wilson Schweitzer Fellow Josh Stewart

As a dental student, I hear patients say they can’t wait to stop wearing masks after they receive the COVID-19 vaccine. I can’t help but worry that vaccines may give people a false sense of security.

Health experts say there are good reasons to continue wearing a mask in public after being vaccinated, at least until we have some level of herd immunity. With estimates that more than 60 percent of the population will need to have immune protection to benefit from herd immunity, we have a long way to go.

The recent news of certain states lifting restrictions comes at a particularly sensitive moment. Such plans to lift precautions are premature and cavalier. The decision to eliminate mask mandates and open businesses at 100 percent capacity could cause not only a resurgence of cases but also sends a dangerous message to the public that it’s OK to stop wearing masks and social distancing in public. As the COVID-19 variant that first emerged in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, threatens the progress we’ve made thus far, now is not the time to let our guard down. The decision by some states to lift restrictions also defies the CDC’s recommendations for vaccinated people.

The CDC recently released the first set of public health guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people can visit indoors with other fully vaccinated people and unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease without wearing masks or physical distancing. For now, fully vaccinated people should continue to wear a mask and practice physical distancing in public, when visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk or who have an unvaccinated household member who is at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease, and when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households. Fully vaccinated people should also continue to avoid medium to large in-person gatherings.

If you’ve already received your full dose of the vaccine and are still planning on ditching your mask, here are three reasons to think twice before you go out without your mask:

1. No vaccine is 100 percent effective: Clinical trials found that two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines prevented 95 percent of illnesses caused by the coronavirus. That means one in 20 people is still left unprotected.

2. COVID-19 vaccines may not prevent you from spreading the virus: Researchers need more time to figure out whether vaccines prevent transmission. A vaccinated person might still be able to spread the virus, even if they don’t feel sick.

3. Masks protect against any strain of the coronavirus: New genetic variants of the coronavirus appear to be at least 50 percent more contagious than the original. So far, studies suggest vaccines will still work against these new strains, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that masks protect against the coronavirus no matter the strain.

One thing is clear: avoiding crowds, physical distancing and wearing masks reduces the risk of contracting the coronavirus. The best hope for ending the pandemic isn’t to choose between masks, physical distancing and vaccines, but to combine them.

Seat belts are good, air bags are good, safe driving is good, and collectively, the three help drastically reduce crash mortality and morbidity. Now is not the time to let up on masking, even for the immunized.

Abandoning mask-wearing and social distancing in public is not the right thing to recommend, yet. We should continue to practice masking and distancing post-vaccine until we get sufficient information to allow us to make rational public health recommendations.

Josh Stewart is a fourth-year student in the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine and is a 2020-21 J. Bradley Wilson Schweitzer Fellow. He is from Greensboro.