This story is part of a series where we look at the ways COVID-19 has changed our lives and how it will continue to affect public health in 2022.
- Mask recommendations have shifted a lot throughout the pandemic in response to changing circumstances and emerging data.
- People have worn masks to prevent the spread of respiratory infections even before the pandemic.
- It is difficult to predict when we can stop wearing face masks because the pandemic is far from over.
Face masks have saved thousands of lives over the past year and a half. In that time, we’ve come to learn just how much this cheap public health tool can dramatically reduce the transmission of a highly infectious virus.
Still, wearing them has quickly become tiresome for many, especially as we’re about to enter year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will masks finally come off in 2022?
“Masks are for now, not forever,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, told ABC News this month.
But unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over. As we head into another COVID-19 surge this winter, masks may be as important as ever.
Why Are Mask Recommendations Always Changing?
Since the start of the pandemic, mask recommendations have changed and shifted. Across the United States, there’s a hodgepodge of different masking protocols.
Several states require people to wear masks in indoor public places, while others have not imposed mandates of any sort. Some eliminated mask orders around spring when the CDC eased their mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people.
But now, a few states have reinstated indoor mask requirements in light of Omicron, the new dominant COVID-19 variant in the U.S.
Masks remain one of the strongest tools we have for curbing COVID-19. But these ambiguous policies have sent a confusing message about their effectiveness.
“I understand that there’s been a lot of confusion [with the] back-and-forth with COVID-19 mask recommendations from federal health agencies,” Sheela Shenoi, MD, medical director of general infectious diseases at Yale Medicine and associate director of the office of global health, told Verywell. “This has been an unfortunate consequence of the evolution of the pandemic. As more variants have arrived, we’ve had to re-learn the behavior of these variants and the best way to respond to them.”
Mask recommendations are often influx because the federal government has to adjust to emerging research as well as the constantly changing circumstances of the ongoing pandemic. Since 2020, community mask-wearing has been pivotal in reducing the transmission of the virus, and that remains true to this day. Mask recommendations only changed when there was a clear circumstantial need for it.
Back in May, the CDC changed their stance stating that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask or do physical distancing in certain instances, citing the sharp reduction in cases and increase of fully vaccinated individuals. When the highly transmissible Delta variant fueled an increase in COVID-19 infections and breakthrough cases in late July, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in places of high community transmission. (Currently, most of the U.S. is classified as a place of high transmission.)
While some people have been very receptive to these shifts in messaging, others feel worn down and tired of all the restrictions, Shenoi said.
The demotivation to engage in protective behaviors due to different emotions and perceptions— which can include complacency, alienation, and hopelessness—is called pandemic fatigue. It is an expected and natural response to the prolonged public health crisis.
“Unfortunately, that fatigue—which is not unexpected and not surprising—however, does continue to put people at risk,” Shenoi said.
But Mask-Wearing Isn’t New
Prior to the pandemic, many people wore masks to reduce the spread of respiratory infections. It was common—and even encouraged—in East Asian countries to wear masks as a common courtesy to others when a person is feeling ill.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak back in 2003 largely shaped this mask-wearing etiquette and helped it take hold. The global spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (H5N1) may have played a role as well.
But culturally, mask-wearing may be viewed differently in Western countries compared to some Asian countries due to habit, William Jankowiak, PhD, co-director of the Asian and Asian American Studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Verywell.
According to a 2021 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, culture is a major factor in how people respond to public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that people from more collectivistic regions are more likely to wear masks than those from individualistic regions. Collectivism is more concerned about a group’s needs and interests, whereas individualism is more oriented towards one’s own concerns.
The study demonstrated that collectivism positively predicted mask-wearing because people in collectivistic cultures are more willing to tolerate personal inconvenience for the good of many.
Some people from individualistic cultures view mask-wearing as something that violates their freedom, valuing personal choice and autonomy while disregarding how they may affect the community.
“We have low trust and a lower sense of responsibility for the social good,” Jankowiak said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been many anti-mask rallies across the country where protesters gather to defend their choice not to follow policies. Several experts have already cited Americans’ individualistic culture as a hindrance to widespread mask-wearing.
What This Means For You
Masks will be a part of life for the foreseeable future. N95 and surgical masks are your best options for protection. Doubling up with a surgical mask and a cloth one can offer you additional protection as well.
Will We Have to Wear Masks Forever?
“We have to see how we’re going to continue to respond to this pandemic,” Shenoi said. “This pandemic is far from over.”
In July, Delta overtook Alpha as the dominant COVID-19 strain in the U.S. Now, Omicron has quickly replaced Delta, accounting for more than 70% of cases as of December 18. While the case for leaving masks behind might’ve looked optimistic before Omicron hit the scene, we’re now facing a different situation
While we are still learning about the new variant of concern, the emergence of Omicron quickly sent the message that the pandemic is still ongoing. No country can get out of it alone.
“While we have been able to vaccinate a substantial number of people in the U.S., there’s a large proportion of people who remain unvaccinated and remain hosts for ongoing virus transmission,” Shenoi said. “Globally, there’s a large proportion of the global population that remains unvaccinated, and until we address those both very important segments of the population here in the U.S. and globally, we’re not going to be able to think past this pandemic.”
But how about after COVID-19 has faded from view? Given that the pandemic has been ongoing for about two years, it’s not impractical to wonder whether Americans will adopt the habit of mask-wearing even after the pandemic, similar to some Asian countries.
Some may still use masks beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, but most people will probably revert to earlier habits, Jankowiak said. If the pandemic persists, we could begin to see a new tolerance in wearing masks for personal and public health, he added.
“It is possible that the habit of mask-wearing will take hold in the U.S,” Shenoi said. “I’ve spoken with lots of people who have enjoyed the lack of respiratory infections, in particular flu, that we’ve experienced, largely because people were wearing masks and we’re not coming into contact with other people.”
Because of the safety precautions people have been taking during the pandemic, there have been remarkably low numbers of flu cases and deaths. People anecdotally report experiencing common colds less often. Those who feel that mask-wearing allows them to protect themselves better and have more control may be highly motivated to continue the habit beyond the pandemic.
A poll conducted in July found that 67% of respondents intend to wear masks whenever they’re sick and 43% plan to wear masks in crowded places even after COVID-19.
Overall, the end to mask-wearing might not be in sight just yet. And the jury is still out on how and when this pandemic will end.
We have to continue practicing well-established COVID-19 health interventions in the new year, such as wearing well-fitting face masks and getting your vaccines and booster shots. These strategies not only protect you but your community as well.
“I hope we’re not going to have to wear masks forever,” Shenoi said. “I hope that this is something that we can get past, but as long as this virus poses a risk to people who are vulnerable in our society—people who may be immunocompromised, people who are elderly, people with lots of medical comorbidities, children who are unvaccinated or who are not eligible for vaccination at this point—then we have to take the precautions to protect everybody.”
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.