As more and more Americans get vaccinated, you might be wondering: do you still need to wear a mask? We offer tips on when to consider masking—both indoors and outdoors—as well as when going mask-free could be safe.
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Just a few months ago, we thought masks were on their way to becoming a distant memory.

Then the delta variant of the coronavirus bared its teeth, and many Americans put their masks back on. And now, we're hearing about cases of the omicron variant being on the rise in certain countries, although delta continues to be the main variant circulating in the U.S.

As more and more Americans get vaccinated, and—fingers crossed—these variants begin to wane, you might be wondering: do you still need to wear a mask?

Hold the drumroll. The answer is not clear-cut. "It depends," answered Erin Dunn Snyder, M.D., a general internist and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, when we asked her.

A woman putting on a face mask with a designed treatment
Credit: Getty Images / kali9

If you recall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance on mask recommendations over the summer. Here's what they said:

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did before the pandemic. However, you should wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission."

The CDC also added that being fully vaccinated and wearing a mask maximizes your protection from the delta variant and possibly spreading it to others. An update in early December said the same in regard to the omicron variant.

While this advice is clear and helpful, the two factors—vaccination status and transmission rates—are quite significant. "Fully" vaccinated is defined as two weeks after your second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or two weeks after your single dose of Johnson & Johnson. Currently, only about 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Look at transmission rates, and you'll see that most of the country is currently experiencing a high rate of transmission. (Check out the CDC map here.)

So really, we should all be back to wearing masks. But is wearing them only indoors sufficient?

"Coronavirus is transmitted through the air, so the longer you are sharing air with a lot of people, the higher your risk. I would recommend wearing a mask whenever you are in a crowded space, especially when inside," advises Snyder.

When to Consider Wearing a Mask Both Indoors and Outdoors

While most vaccinated people can leave their mask off when outdoors, some should consider keeping it on even outdoors. For example, if you think your ability to respond to the vaccine isn't as strong, you may still want to mask up all the time. "People who are immunosuppressed either due to a medical condition or medications may not be able to make as many antibodies in response to vaccination, so are more at risk to catch COVID-19 if exposed," says Snyder.

You also should consider how much COVID-19 is being transmitted in your community. "If you have full hospitals and ICUs, as many places experienced this summer, that means there are a lot of people in the community with COVID-19 as well," says Snyder. "And some of them may be asymptomatic and in the same restaurant or concert as you are."

If you have family members who are at high risk or are unvaccinated, you may want to take more precautions with masking. Remember, people can catch and transmit COVID-19 even after vaccination, "although much less likely and in lower numbers than if they were not vaccinated," adds Snyder.

When It May Be Safe to Skip a Mask Altogether

If coronavirus infections seem to be dropping where you are and you are vaccinated, you may feel safe leaving masks off even inside. "But conditions can change quickly, so keep an eye on infection rates, hospitalizations and ICU capacity," says Snyder. "We learned this summer that even as things seemed to be getting better, it only took a week or two for a new variant to come along and change the game."

Bottom line

The combination of being fully vaccinated and wearing a mask maximizes your protection from COVID variants and possibly spreading it to others. And with the high transmission rates across the country and only about half of all Americans fully vaccinated, we realistically should all be back to wearing masks indoors and outdoors when in a crowded place and unable to social distance.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDCWHO and their local public health department as resources.