How Long Are We Going to Be Wearing Masks? We Asked the Experts

To help stem the dramatic spread of coronavirus throughout the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has officially recommended that people wear cloth face masks in public, especially when proper social distancing (i.e. keeping six feet between you and the next person) isn’t possible. The recommendation holds true for individuals over the age of two, while infants, who are at greater risk of suffocation from mask-wearing, should go mask-free. Wearing a mask properly lowers your risk of both contracting and transmitting COVID-19, so it’s important for adults and older children to follow that recommendation. But how long will this new normal last? The CDC hasn’t addressed exactly how long we’ll be wearing masks over our noses and mouths as we go about our essential business and errands, so we asked experts for their predictions.

While it’s nice to imagine that life will return to normal in the near future, experts estimate that it’s going to be quite some time before we can safely head out the door without donning protective face coverings again.

Pediatrician Cara Natterson, MD, founder of Worry Proof Consulting and author of Decoding Boys, says that the the easing of the recommendation will depend on “a variety of factors,” including “how well people physically distance once stay-at-home mandates are lifted; the availability and accuracy of virus and antibody testing; and the eventual availability of a vaccine.”

Antibody testing detects whether or not your body has already encountered an illness and has produced antibodies to fight it off, which will certainly be helpful information in the battle against COVID-19. However, it’s too early to tell whether or not antibodies can prevent someone who has had this particular disease from getting it again, so there’s much more research to be done there.

“We should all get used to masks for now because we don’t have a great system in place to figure out who is currently infected and who is immune,” Natterson explains.

Additionally, it will probably be some time before vaccines that confer potential immunity are available to the general population. In March, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, MD, warned that a coronavirus vaccine was at least a year to 18 months from wide distribution—an estimate other experts told CNN that they felt was “optimistic.” But scientists all over the world are working urgently on this problem. On Apr. 27, The New York Times reported that scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute say that their first few million vaccines are likely to be available by September, because of testing they’d already done on an inoculation that fights a different strain of coronavirus. If the vaccine is viable, it will first be used on an emergency scale, but their progress provides hope for mass distribution to follow.

According to Jacob DeLaRosa, MD, chief of cardiac surgery of Portneuf Medical Center, we’ll be wearing masks “for the foreseeable future”—or until we achieve herd immunity, which occurs when the majority of a population has become immune to a virus through vaccination or contracting and recovering from said illness.

Unfortunately, waiting for herd immunity to develop through widespread COVID-19 infections alone would lead to a significant increase in the virus’s projected death toll. Physician scientist William Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease, posits, “Based on estimates, 70 percent of the population would need to be infected for herd immunity to develop, and about three million people would die.” However, Li adds that, when the majority of the population has received an effective vaccine against the virus, “Herd immunity will develop rapidly.”

In the meantime, Natterson recommends not only wearing your face mask as directed but also washing it if you’ve been out among others and whenever you’re concerned about your risk of contamination. She notes that it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to cleaning your mask.

Depending on where you live, not following the CDC’s recommendation could not only make it easier for you to get infected or infect someone yourself—it could also land you with a fine. In Riverside, California, residents risk fines of up to $1,000 or jail time for refusing to don a mask in public; while in the German state of Bavaria, the penalty is up to $5,000. And other cities and towns have put penalties in place too.

So to save money and maintain your health, keep your mask secured.

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