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Are there places you should still mask in, forever? Three experts weigh in

A sign requiring the wearing of face masks is displayed at the testing center for visitors to the White House on July 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Joshua Roberts
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Getty Images
A sign requiring the wearing of face masks is displayed at the testing center for visitors to the White House on July 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.

There are still hundreds of thousands of COVID cases reported in the U.S. each week, along with a few thousand deaths related to COVID.

But with mask mandates a thing of the past and the national emergency health declaration that will expire in May, we are in a new phase of the pandemic.

Life looks a little more normal here in the U.S. than it did a few years ago, but decisions on how to deal with the virus aren't over yet.

China had a huge increase in cases last month after abandoning its zero COVID policy, and another variant prompted renewed recommendations in some airports. Researchers estimate that more than 65 million people are struggling with the effects of COVID — a disease we still have to learn about.

However, masking requirements are being lifted in places like Spain and Germany.

Wondering if and when you should still be masking up? NPR asked some experts.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the same university all weighed in.

If you're high risk, you should still be careful

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says he and his wife are still playing it conservatively. He cautions people to stay "careful, not carefree."

As they are older, they are at higher risk of serious illness if they catch the virus. They also care for a family member who is undergoing chemotherapy.

"Older persons, people of any age who have a serious underlying illness, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, if you're immune compromised," Schaffner said, "keep wearing that mask."

Consider masks in crowded, poorly ventilated places

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, plays it a little more by ear.

"I have come to calibrate my mask wearing based on my best educated guess as to the possibility that someone has COVID and also how important is it for me to do the thing without a mask," Wachter says.

While he's no longer concerned about dying or serious illness, the virus can still knock you out. Wachter watched firsthand as his wife recovered from a bout of long COVID-19. He evaluates it case by case. A small gathering where everyone is vaccinated and windows open may not require one. But sitting on an airplane or in a large, crowded theater might be a good idea to do one.

"Those places, I'm wearing a mask now, and I suspect I will wear a mask forever," Wachter said.

"Forever's a long time. But the threat of COVID now, I think, is probably not all that different from it'll be a year from now or five years from now."

Vaccines have provided powerful protection

On the other hand, Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, has leaned into the value of vaccines over masks.

"They're really powerful in terms of what they were designed to do, which is to prevent severe disease," Gandhi said. "This is really the time at which you can say, 'Oh, we have a lot of population immunity in our country.'"

Most Americans now have hybrid immunity, a combination of immunity from vaccines and catching the virus naturally, which is particularly strong. Gandhi feels comfortable going without a mask on most of the time.

Keep assessing your own risk and comfort level

All three experts agree it's a matter of weighing personal risks.

"Lots of people are very cautious," Gandhi said.

"Still, they're happy with their vaccine and feel that they're done worrying about it after vaccination. Everyone's just going to have their own personal biases around that."

Experts do not always agree on what to do.

"I don't think it has a moral dimension," Wachter says.

"I think we're sort of past the time when any of the choices here are really bad choices."

And Schaffner found that this winter there were other benefits to masking and social distancing — like avoiding RSV and flu bouts.

"We have shown that these things are really effective in reducing risk in a population," he said.

This digital story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carmen Molina Acosta
Carmen Molina Acosta (she/her) is a producer at Morning Edition, where she pitches and produces pieces and two-ways for the air and for the web. In February 2023, she helped produce the network's first bilingual State of the Union special coverage. In a past life, she worked in investigative journalism, where she dug into the use of solitary confinement against ICE detainees and the lack of protections for migrant workers during the pandemic. Her work has been published in The Associated Press and The Washington Post, among other outlets. Molina Acosta is trilingual and spent a year abroad living in central Italy and the south of France. She studied journalism and international development as a Banneker/Key scholar at the University of Maryland.

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