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Don't put away your face masks. We may need them even as COVID-19 fades

Colleen Shalby, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, a return to normalcy seems tantalizingly close. But even as restaurants reopen and shopping malls fill up, a glaring reminder of the virus’s presence remains: face masks.

Mask mandates remain in place in most regions across the globe, but the list of places where mask orders have been lifted is growing. Israel dropped its outdoor mask mandate this week, noting that more than half its population has been fully vaccinated. In the U.S., a growing number of states have lifted restrictions, including New Hampshire, which dropped its mandate last week even as coronavirus variants circulate.

In California, where signs of progress have been evident, is it too soon to eliminate one of the first lines of defense against the virus? Here’s what the experts have to say:

With vaccinations increasing and low transmission and hospitalization rates, is it time to get rid of face masks?

In short, no.

Health experts think an end to all face mask requirements would be premature.

 

“Will we be masking in 2025? I doubt it. But it’s still too early to say when we will ditch them, and I think they’ll be one of the last things to go” said Andrew Noymer, a University of California, Irvine associate professor of public health. “They’re cheap, they’re relatively easy to use and they work.”

So far, more than 32% of the state has been fully vaccinated and roughly 44.5% of Californians have received at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to state and federal data. While that number continues to grow, a large chunk of the population still has not received any shots.

California is not a monolith. In the state’s 58 far-flung counties some pockets may be less protected than others amid lingering hesitancy or struggles with access. And although experts and health officials think the vaccines protect against the growing number of variants, it’s still too soon to say whether the protections are ironclad.

“Right now, what’s so encouraging in California is that we’re vaccinating at a high rate and we’re masking at a high rate. That means that if the virus found a way to escape the mask, it can’t find a susceptible host,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine.

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