A woman wearing a face covering walks past posters explaining how to wear a mask at Grand Central Terminal train station on May 12, 2021 in New York City (AFP / Angela Weiss)

Face mask requirements aim to protect unvaccinated people

Copyright AFP 2017-2021. All rights reserved.

Social media posts claim that remaining US mask requirements exist to protect vaccinated people from those who have not been immunized against Covid-19. This is false; experts say that the reverse is true -- masking is primarily intended to protect those who have not been inoculated.

“SO THE UNVAXXED HAVE TO WEAR MASK TO PROTECT THE VAXXINATED,” says a May 22, 2021 Facebook post. “ARE YOU AWAKE YET?”

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on June 4, 2021

More examples of the claim appear on Facebook here and here and on Instagram here.

But the claim is “certainly a myth,” said Dr Monica Gandhi, associate division chief of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital.

At this stage, “those who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks because they are protected by their vaccine and the vaccine also blocks transmission to others,” she told AFP. 

“The unvaccinated are being asked to mask indoors for their own protection,” said Gandhi, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.

“The revised mask requirements reflect CDC’s position that risk of Covid infection and transmission is very low among people who are vaccinated,” she said, referring to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unvaccinated people are still at much higher risk for developing and transmitting Covid-19. Therefore, masks remain a strong component of public health protection for them,” said Mullen, who is also an associate professor of population health.

Protecting the ‘vulnerable’

Dr Benhur Lee, professor of microbiology at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said unvaccinated people are being asked to protect themselves from “infecting other vulnerable people. NOT the vaccinated.”

He added, however, that “health care workers or vaccinated people who might come into contact with the elderly, unvaccinated or immunocompromised individuals should still wear a mask.”

Mask misinformation has persisted throughout the pandemic, driven by anger among those who view face covering requirements as an inconvenience or an impingement on personal freedom.

The CDC says vaccines “are effective at protecting you from getting sick,” and that people who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 generally do not need face masks.

“Based on what we know about Covid-19 vaccines, people who have been fully vaccinated can start to do some things that they had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” it says.

But the agency still recommends that unvaccinated people wear face coverings in most circumstances.

Masks also provide a safety net to protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated people from the risk of coronavirus variants, which are thought by experts to be more contagious.

“It’s like seatbelts, or wearing a helmet,” said Dr Jonathan Karn, head of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

“I’m fully vaccinated, but I’m perfectly happy to keep wearing a mask.”

Covid-19