When Do You Still Need to Wear a Mask?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on when people need to wear a mask—due, in part, to the COVID-19 Delta variant. The recommendations are different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and keep in mind, most children are still unvaccinated. Find out when—and where—you should still be wearing a face covering.

What We Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines

All three available COVID-19 vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—are both safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, including the currently circulating Delta variant. Scientists found that both shots of either of the two-dose vaccine types (Pfizer and Moderna) are necessary to provide good protection against infection and illness caused by the Delta variant. You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second dose (or after the first and only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). Infections can still occur in vaccinated people, but they are generally mild and do not lead to serious disease or hospitalization. Most people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Scientists don’t yet know how long the vaccines will protect people from the virus. There is some evidence that vaccination has the potential to offer many years of protection. However, some doctors think booster shots will be necessary in the future.

When to Wear a Mask If You’re Vaccinated

Once it was clear the vaccines did, in fact, reduce infection and transmission of the virus, the CDC said that most indoor and outdoor activities—even in public settings—were safe without a mask. However, due to the rapid rise of the more contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, the CDC updated the guidance: Fully vaccinated people should wear a mask indoors in public in areas with a substantial number of COVID-19 cases, which indicates the virus is spreading throughout the community and, therefore, a greater risk of infection.

Being fully vaccinated offers very good protection from COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant, but it is not 100%. That means breakthrough infections—those occurring in people who've been vaccinated—are more likely with the Delta variant. What's more, a vaccinated person infected with the Delta variant can, unknowingly, spread the virus to others. Wearing a mask in indoor public spaces—regardless of the level of transmission—is particularly important if you are immunocompromised (such as HIV positive, elderly, or taking immunosuppressive drugs) or have a medical condition like obesity that increases your risk of developing more severe COVID-19, if you were to get a breakthrough infection.

It is also important to wear a mask if you live with or are visiting someone who is at risk, either because they are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or at risk of severe COVID-19.

To summarize, vaccinated people should wear a mask when they:

  • Enter an indoor public space in an area with substantial or high transmission (you can check your county here); vaccinated, but at-risk individuals may decide to wear a mask in indoor public spaces regardless of transmission levels
  • Travel by plane or are in an airport
  • Use public transportation, such as buses or trains, or are in a station
  • Visit a medical office or other healthcare setting
  • Visit a correctional facility or homeless shelter

Keep in mind that you still need to follow local laws on wearing masks, as well as business and workplace guidelines, even if you’re fully vaccinated. And if you’re experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19—such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, body aches, or headache—you should get tested, wear a mask, and stay away from others until you get your test results. Remember: The vaccines have been shown to be very effective at protecting against the disease, but the risk is still not zero.

When to Wear a Mask If You’re Unvaccinated

The recommendations for unvaccinated people haven’t changed—masks and physical distancing are still necessary in most situations. This includes most children, as the CDC only recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12 years old. Children younger than 12 cannot get the vaccine yet, although clinical trials are in progress.

Unvaccinated people may safely go without masks in limited situations, including:

  • Outdoor activities with members of their household
  • Small outdoor get-togethers with people who are fully vaccinated 
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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