California Reopening: Experts Say Keep Masks Handy
High Vaccination Rates Have Pushed COVID-19 Cases Down, but Masking is Still a Good Idea in Many Situations
This week brings a milestone to pandemic-weary Californians: As of June 15, California public health guidelines that have been in place during the 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic will be relaxed. Those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be able to go mask-free in most situations, but Cedars-Sinai infectious disease experts suggest masks, an important tool in preventing transmission of the virus, will be with us a while longer.
"I think the public health guidance on this has been fairly sound, at least in California and the Los Angeles area," said Michael Ben-Aderet, MD, associate medical director of Hospital Epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai and an assistant professor of Medicine. "So, I feel very comfortable with the recommendations that are being made. Still, I think we should all keep our masks around for now, knowing that there may be some situations where we want to use them."
Masking will still be required in hospitals and healthcare settings, in many workplaces, and during travel, and guidelines are likely to continue evolving, Ben-Aderet said.
"These recommendations are likely to remain somewhat complex, because they're based on multiple variables, like community prevalence of COVID-19, overall vaccination rate, level of risk and specific populations," Ben-Aderet said.
Some people are especially vulnerable to infection even when vaccinated, and should wear masks in crowded spaces and other higher-risk situations, said infectious disease specialist Jillian Oft, MD, who works with Cedars-Sinai's COVID-19 Recovery Program.
"For people with immune deficiencies, or who may be on medications to lower their immune system, vaccine coverage may be only partial," Oft said. "Those people should ask their doctors for specific masking recommendations."
Oft said that patients in the COVID-19 Recovery Program, who continue to experience troubling symptoms even months after recovering, have been wary of reinfection and are likely to continue wearing masks.
"Any situation where I was at a large gathering, sharing airspace with a lot of people – things like movie theaters and concerts come to mind – I would definitely consider wearing a mask in that situation," she said.
Cold and flu season – which virtually disappeared last year – could also help masks stage a comeback as it ramps up this fall, Ben-Aderet said.
"We've seen how effective masks can be at decreasing transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases," said Ben-Aderet. "These diseases are still out there, and everyone has a different risk threshold, and I certainly wouldn't take away anyone's mask if it gives them a sense of security."
Meanwhile, epidemiologists worldwide will continue following variants, vaccination rates, caseloads and other details to adapt public health guidelines to conditions on the ground.
"I am hopeful that this reopening is going to go well, based on how we've done so far and how things have been going," Ben-Aderet said. "But I think masks are here to stay. At the end of the day, it's still a new infection. And we're still learning and we're going to continue to learn."
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai blog: Coping With Trauma in the Wake of COVID-19.