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Do You Still Need a Face Mask After Full Vaccination?

Are you ready to get on with your life? Want to put COVID behind you? Vaccines and boosters can help. Do you still need a face mask inside?
Do You Still Need a Face Mask After Full Vaccination?
Male driver wearing protective N95 face mask sitting by left drive wheel in UK drive-thru COVID-19 test centre,answering health check up questions,medical worker ticking off symptoms on clipboard form

The last few months have been horrible. That’s because so many people caught COVID and died since July. The Delta variant tore through the country like wild fire. The unvaccinated were hardest hit, especially in the south. Now, though, Maine, North Dakota, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Montana and Alaska are experiencing increases in new cases. Even people who have been fully vaccinated are experiencing breakthrough infections. So, do you still need a face mask when you are out and about?

700,000 Deaths and Counting:

We hit a devastating milestone last week. Over 700,000 US citizens have died because of the coronavirus. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we are starting to see a downward trend. In early September we were averaging around 160,000 new cases daily. That started to decline around mid-September. On October 4, 2021, there were 137,386 reported new cases according to the Washington Post. (Some tracking organizations report even lower numbers.)

On October 3, 2021, the number of people hospitalized with COVID was 69, 204. That is down from a peak of about 97,000 on September 4, 2021.

Why Do People Still Need a Face Mask?

Many people have been surprised to learn that they are not completely protected from the Delta variant even after they have been fully vaccinated. The vaccines do a very good job keeping people out of hospitals and saving lives. But the Delta variant has shown us that vaccination does not prevent all infections.

A Prison “Experiment”

A federal prison in Texas was part of an accidental experiment (MMWR, Sept. 21, 2021). There were 233 prisoners in one wing of this facility. A majority (79%) was fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, when an outbreak of COVID-19 started in the prison in July, it swept through the entire wing.

There were 42 unvaccinated individuals and 39 of them (93%) came down with the infection. By comparison, 129 of 185 vaccinated prisoners (70%) caught COVID. Four people needed to be hospitalized, three of them unvaccinated. One unvaccinated person died.

The authors conclude:

“During a COVID-19 outbreak involving the Delta variant in a highly vaccinated incarcerated population, transmission rates were high, even among vaccinated persons.”

Prisons Are NOT Normal Communities:

Critics of this study might argue that a prison does not reflect normal circumstances. That is certainly true. On the other hand, there is now ample evidence that fully vaccinated individuals can become infected with the coronavirus.

One reader shared this story:

“When the Delta variant first arrived in our community this summer, we discovered an extremely high rate of breakthrough infections. At an employee meeting of 11 people in one room, one person who was fully vaccinated had the virus (unknowingly) and spread it to the nine other fully vaccinated people (who did not wear masks).

“The only person who did NOT catch the virus had worn a mask, because they were not vaccinated. Some of the people that got the breakthrough infection were sick in bed for two whole weeks.”

What About Boosters: Will People Still Need a Face Mask?

We suspect that when people get a booster, they may again experience a false sense of security. They might throw away their masks and gather at restaurants, concerts or sporting events.

The preliminary data from Israel indicate that breakthrough infections after a booster were 11 times lower. That’s the good news. But there were still breakthrough infections and a few people were hospitalized with severe infections. 

Israel started administering booster shots in August. This last Sunday, there were 588 patients in bad shape from COVID. About three fourths were unvaccinated. Another 19% were fully vaccinated, but still caught COVID and were in serious condition. Of those who received two shots plus a booster shot, only 6% were quite ill. That tells us that booster shots are good but they do not provide a magic blanket of perfect protection.

Another reader puts this situation into perspective:

“We were told that vaccinations were not necessarily going to completely prevent infection. They were to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. That appears to be working for the most part.

“I have two friends who tested positive after vaccination. One was asymptomatic and the other was mildly ill. That tells me the vaccine did what it was advertised to do.

“The big thing for all of us to remember is that we need to still be cautious to completely avoid getting or spreading COVID-19. Masking and distancing will help.”

The Downward Trend:

We are optimistic that the downward trend will continue for the next several months. Like the last time we saw a dramatic dip in cases, many people believed COVID was finally in the rearview mirror. But thousands of people are still catching COVID-19 every day and that will not end soon.

Still Need a Face Mask?

The bottom line seems to be that vaccination is good at preventing serious illness from COVID, but it’s not perfect!

If you are going to be inside with other people, you probably still need a face mask. I know that’s annoying. We all want to shed masks as soon as possible. That will probably occur within the next few months as herd immunity and vaccinations reduce infections back to June levels. Until then, though, face masks will prevent breakthrough infections of COVID-19.

Not all masks are created equal, however. There is growing evidence that typical cloth masks and surgical masks that loop behind the ears do not provide an adequate barrier.

If air can move around the cheeks, the top of the nose or under the chin, those gaps can let viral particles pass. Instead, a better choice is a mask that seals well against the face. N95 and KN95 masks provide the best protection.

An article in Scientific Reports (Sept. 30, 2021) describes it this way: 

“Filtering facepieces (FFP) provide a better protection efficiency than surgical and community masks due to their higher filtration efficiency and their ability to provide a better fit and thus reduce the leakages. However, an improperly-fitted FFP mask loses a critical fraction of its protection efficiency, which may drop below the protection level provided by properly-worn surgical and community masks.”

Please Stay Safe!

Dear reader, we are so grateful to you for supporting our mission to provide an independent voice dedicated to consumer health protection. We want you to stay healthy until this pandemic is truly behind us. Thank you for sharing the information we write about.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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