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VCU Health expert urges people, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, to “mask up” again

Family wearing masks having a picnic Photo: Getty Images

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise throughout the Commonwealth and the nation, VCU Health encourages our community to do its part to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Whether you are vaccinated or not, one thing everyone can do is wear a mask. VCU Health infectious diseases expert Dr. Michael Stevens explains why wearing a mask remains critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19, and especially, the contagious delta variant.

Why is VCU Health encouraging everyone to “mask up”?

COVID-19 activity is extremely high in the community right now, and even though the vaccine is very effective, there's the potential for breakthrough infections. If you're vaccinated and you have a breakthrough infection, it's far less likely that you're going to get severely sick. However, you can still spread the disease, so it’s important that people are wearing their masks. Wearing masks reduces your risk of getting the virus and also of transmitting it to others.

Why is it especially important now?

We're in the midst of a fourth wave of COVID-19 activity here in Virginia. You can keep yourself and others safe if you default to thinking that anyone you encounter in public has COVID-19 and act accordingly. This means wearing your mask and avoiding large gatherings, especially those that are indoors.

It’s important to note that even when you are outdoors, you can spread the disease if you can't maintain a distance of 6 feet from others. You should be masking anytime you're around other people, especially if you can't maintain appropriate distance. The delta variant is about twice as infectious as the original COVID-19 strain and it's very important right now, as we're seeing just such a massive surge of activity, to protect yourself.

Should vaccinated people wear masks?

Absolutely. That's changed with the emergence of the delta variant and breakthrough infections. With the vaccine, you have protection against severe illness if your immune system is working the way it's supposed to, but you still could get the infection. The real danger is that you could transmit it to somebody else, and masking will help reduce the likelihood you're going to transmit that to other people.

Where should people wear masks?

If you're out in public, especially indoor spaces, you should be wearing a mask right now, period. If you're outdoors in public around other people and you can't maintain a 6-foot distance, you should wear a mask. There's just so much community spread that it's prudent to do it until things start to improve.

Who is protected by these masking recommendations/requirements?

Wearing a mask protects everybody. You’re protecting yourself and you’re protecting others. It’s really important to note that you are protecting the vulnerable populations because not everyone is able to get vaccinated right now or may not reliably respond to vaccination. For example, some people with suppressed immune systems may not respond to vaccination and could get severely ill if they develop COVID-19.  

You are also protecting children under 12 who are not eligible for the vaccine. We know this surge in the virus is impacting kids more than we've seen in the past and you're protecting all of them by masking and getting your vaccine.

Besides wearing masks, is there any other advice you would like to offer as we approach Labor Day weekend?

The No. 1, 2 and 3 pieces of advice I have for people is to get vaccinated. But keep in mind, once you have received two doses of the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’ll still need to wait until two weeks after your last vaccine dose to be considered fully vaccinated, so please take that into consideration as you are making plans for Labor Day and beyond.

Get vaccinated, wear your mask, avoid large gatherings and social distance — those are the most important things we can all do to stop the spread of COVID-19.