India has launched the world’s largest vaccination drive against Covid-19. As is the case elsewhere, there are questions surrounding the vaccines, and one such question is whether one can stop wearing a face mask after receiving the vaccine. Experts around the world largely concur that the answer to the question is a simple “no”.
It is not known if a vaccinated individual can get reinfected and in the process spread the virus, which usually enters through the nose. The virus, therefore, is only one sneeze or breath away from finding its way to another person. The point of wearing a mask, after all, is not just to prevent one from getting it, but also to ensure that those around them do not receive it in the event that the said individual is infected.
The Covid-19 vaccines, which are injected to the bloodstream through the muscles, bear a sharp contrast to mucosal vaccines which target the virus at its entry point, where it is needed the most. Getting exposed to the virus at the entry point a second time offers higher protection as those antibodies and immune cells that remember the virus rapidly shut down the virus in the nose before it gets a chance to take hold elsewhere in the body.
Until vaccinations that are injected through the muscles are able to offer protection in the nasal passage and lungs, where respiratory diseases cause maximum damage or development of herd immunity, it is necessary to continue wearing a face mask.
It takes time for the vaccine to kick in. You won’t reach the nearly 95% effectiveness rate until two weeks after your second-dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. After the first dose, you do get a partial immune response, which is good news, but it doesn’t mean you’re immediately protected the minute the needle goes in your arm. For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your single dose. The vaccines do not provide 100% protection. Although the vaccines are incredibly effective, they only offer 94% to 95% protection. There’s no way to tell who the 5% will be who don’t respond to the vaccine and will still be at risk for COVID-19.
According to Dr. S. Wesley Long, a researcher at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, any time you’re in public, with people whose vaccination status you don’t know, it’s a good idea to wear a mask. If you’re in a crowded area or large gathering, masking is also a good idea. “Although most data suggests vaccinated individuals are unlikely to transmit the virus if infected, if you are spending time with high-risk or immunocompromised individuals, it would be good to wear a mask to help protect them as well,” Long said.
Those who have been vaccinated might be asymptomatic spreaders. The vaccines prevent illness, but more research is needed to determine if the vaccines also prevent transmission. Experts are concerned that vaccinated people can still become infected without symptoms and then spread it to others who have not been vaccinated yet. Since the pandemic unfolded nearly a year ago, experts have worried about silent spreaders, aka those who are infected but don’t show symptoms. If vaccinated people don’t continue to wear a face mask until more people are considered fully vaccinated, they could cause the virus to keep circulating.
Dr. Shruti Gohil, MPH, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine in the division of infectious diseases, department of medicine, UCI School of Medicine, said, “The larger public health goal is to limit transmissions at a population level.” Vaccination is one strategy for achieving this goal, she said. However, until community prevalence is low enough, we must all continue to wear masks indoors.
While this might seem counterintuitive, given that a vaccinated individual is well protected, Gohil said there are good reasons why people should continue to mask. Firstly, she explained, there’s a small chance, in the range of 4 to 5 percent, that a vaccinated person could still become sick and be able to transmit the virus to someone else. Secondly, there’s no way to know at a glance who is fully vaccinated. If we loosen masking criteria for some and not others, this can become very confusing and lead to unvaccinated people thinking they no longer need to wear masks, she said.
Getting vaccinated means you’re much less likely to get sick and develop symptoms yourself, so it’s critical that we protect others while they wait for their turn to receive the vaccine. We still need to protect those with compromised immune systems and those who can’t be vaccinated. We’ll need to continue universal masking when in public, hand washing, avoiding large crowds and keep physical distance when we’re around others who are not fully vaccinated.