Woman wearing a facemask

Updated March 1, 2021

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna received emergency use authorization (EUA) in December 2020. A vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson/Janssen received EUA in February 2021.

Distribution of those vaccines is underway across the country.

Although the vaccine represents a major step in the battle against COVID-19, it does not mean the pandemic is over. It is crucial to follow other actions that can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those include wearing a facemask when you are around people not from your household, social distancing, and washing your hands.

You should continue to follow those preventive steps even after receiving the vaccine.

“It’s fundamentally important to keep doing the basics, the masking, the distancing, washing your hands, while we get everybody vaccinated,” says Graham Snyder, MD, medical director, Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology, UPMC. “Then they’ll work together to keep us safe.”

Read on for more about why masking remains so important.

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How Does Wearing a Mask Help Against COVID-19?

Wearing a mask along with following other preventive measures can help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Facemasks can keep you from spreading COVID-19 to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They also add a layer of protection for you.

The CDC recommends people above the age of 2 wear facemasks in public and when around people not from their household. The mask should be snug, cover your nose and mouth, and fit underneath your chin.

“The virus generally rests in the back of your nose and your throat,” says Donald Yealy, MD, chair, Emergency Medicine, UPMC. “So the mask not only protects the incoming, but also the outgoing.”

I Got the COVID-19 Vaccine. Do I Still Need to Wear a Mask?

The answer is yes, for several reasons.

1. The protection of the vaccines does not begin immediately. It takes time for a vaccine to create the necessary levels of protection in your body.

Also, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines require two doses for full effectiveness. The J&J vaccine currently requires one dose, but it still takes time to trigger the immune response.

“Even though you may have the optimal immune response between seven and 14 days after the second dose, you still have to do the simple, smart things,” Dr. Yealy says. “Wear the mask still, keep your distance and don’t congregate with folks who are outside your family, and wash your hands.”

2. The vaccines aren’t 100% effective. All three vaccines showed high effectiveness in trials. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were at least 94% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The J&J vaccine is reportedly about 70% effective against mild to moderate COVID-19 and 85% effective against severe COVID-19.

However, it is still possible to get COVID-19 even if you get the vaccine. That makes it important to continue to wear a mask and follow other preventive measures as more people receive the vaccine.

“To have a vaccine that has a 94%, 95% chance of keeping you from getting sick if you’re exposed to the virus is incredible, but that’s not 100%,” Dr. Snyder says.

3. You still may be able to spread COVID-19 after getting the vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine can prevent you from becoming sick. But scientists are still researching whether it’s possible for you to spread COVID-19 after getting the vaccine.

“We do not yet know how well the vaccines will protect you from being contagious if you’re exposed,” Dr. Snyder says.

Because it will take several months for the vaccines to be fully distributed, it’s important to continue other preventive measures. That makes wearing a facemask a crucial step in protecting other people.

4. There are multiple COVID-19 variants. Mutations in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have led to multiple COVID-19 variants. These variants are spreading worldwide, including in the United States.

It is likely the vaccines provide some level of protection against the COVID-19 variants. But researchers do not yet know how much of an impact the variants will have on the vaccines’ effectiveness.

“It’s exceptionally unlikely that even with some changes in the virus, these new variants, the vaccine will go from highly effective to completely ineffective,” Dr. Yealy says.

Still, there may be some impact. Facemasks and other preventive measures to limit COVID-19 spread should continue as more is learned about the variants’ effect on vaccines.

“We really have to be the most vigilant about using all tools to prevent [COVID-19],” Dr. Yealy says.

When Can I Stop Wearing a Mask?

It will take several months to fully distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone in the United States who is eligible and wants one.

Until that time, people should follow the other preventive measures that can help limit COVID-19 spread. Wearing masks is one such preventive measure, as is social distancing, avoiding crowds, and maintaining good hand hygiene.

As a larger share of the population receives the vaccine, life can begin to return to normal. But we are not there yet.

“Until a large part of the community has been through vaccination, we still have to do those simple things,” Dr. Yealy says. “Your best vaccine is what you wear around your nose and mouth.”

For more about UPMC’s response to COVID-19, visit UPMC.com/COVID19.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19: Considerations for Wearing a Mask. Link

About UPMC

A $21 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates more than 90,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 3.8 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $500 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside on its annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to UPMC.com.