The public could be wearing masks into 2022, said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. But Dr. Fauci also said we could avoid that necessity if we take certain crucial precautions now.
Dr. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease specialist, weighed in on the possibility of another year of masks during a CNN interview on Sunday. He was asked what the “normality” he and President Joe Biden hope to approach by the end of 2021 will really look like. “Do you think Americans will still be wearing masks, for example, in 2022?” asked anchor Dana Bash.
“You know, I think it is possible that that’s the case. And, again, it really depends on what you mean by normality,” Dr. Fauci responded. “If ‘normality’ means exactly the way things were before we had this happen to us—I mean, I can’t predict that,” he continued.
Whether or not mask wearing is still necessary in 2022 will depend on how far COVID-19 infection rates and community spread have fallen and how much vaccinations have risen by then. “If you combine getting most of the people in the country vaccinated with getting the level of virus in the community very, very low, then I believe you’re going to be able to say that, for the most part, we don’t have to wear masks,” Dr. Fauci explained.
Before recommending that people stop wearing masks in public, Dr. Fauci said he would like to see a baseline level of COVID-19 infections so low that the risk of being exposed to the virus is as close to zero as possible—as well as an “overwhelming majority” of people being vaccinated. “Then, I would feel comfortable saying, ‘You know, we need to pull back on masks. We don’t need to have masks.'”
Dr. Fauci has previously said that we need to get 75 to 85 percent of people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19—the point at which enough of the population has immunity to the virus that it can’t spread throughout the community, as SELF has explained. The country’s slow vaccine rollout is expected to pick up speed in the coming months, but currently only 13 percent of Americans are vaccinated, according to NPR. (It’s important to note that, for the country to reach herd immunity, the COVID-19 vaccines need to prevent transmission of the virus as well as the infection. Data from the clinical trials suggests the vaccines we have available now can effectively prevent symptomatic coronavirus infections, but the data is less conclusive about their effects on transmission. However, experts believe it’s highly likely the vaccines can also help prevent the spread of the virus to at least some degree.)
Until then, public health tools like social distancing and mask wearing (which experts say are responsible for the recent decline in COVID-19 cases), will continue to be instrumental in getting us to some level of normality later in 2021. Dr. Fauci cautioned that any long-term predictions, like whether we’ll be wearing masks in 2022, are only estimates based on the information we have now. But he is confident we’ll be in much better shape by the fall and winter. “Obviously, I think we’re going to have a significant degree of normality beyond the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year,” he said.