RICHMOND, Va. -- Think about the difference between being around someone smoking indoors versus someone smoking outdoors. A Virginia health expert said that this explains the science behind new CDC guidance that says people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks when outside in public places, in most cases.
Dr. Laura Hungerford is a public health expert at Virginia Tech. With millions of Virginians vaccinated against COVID-19, she said the timing is right for new masking guidance.
“We’ve known about the aerosol part for quite a while and that people could be outside without masks. But I think to keep coming out with little, tiny tweaks, ‘here’s today’s change, here’s next week's change,' doesn’t give people a lot of confidence,” Dr. Hungerford said. “It’s a good time now because people can put this into practice. As opposed to saying: I’m frustrated, no I can’t do that and I want to, or didn’t something come out about that a long time ago? But I don’t remember.”
The Centers for Disease Control updated their guidance for mask-wearing Tuesday, after studies showing viral spread is much less likely when outdoors, especially for those inoculated against COVID-19 through one of three approved vaccines.
Vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask during most outdoor activities, the guidelines say. However, those not vaccinated against the virus still need to wear a face-covering in most situations because they are not protected against transmission, the CDC says.
Even though research shows vaccinated people shed much less virus in the unlikely event they contract COVID-19, experts said indoor masking is required since those studies are still underway.
Dr. Hungerford explained the science behind the indoor versus outdoor masking guidance.
“We’re all used to people not being allowed to smoke indoors at places, but they can smoke outdoors. It’s the same thing; it’s the concentration of what they’re breathing out that’s in the environment where the rest of us are breathing in. It’s the same way with breathing out viruses. When you’re outdoors, it blows away on the wind; it dissipates. And so, the people around are not affected unless they’re very close and you’re breathing in their face.”
Up to this point, masks were the main barrier to the person-to-person spread of COVID-19, so Dr. Hungerford said this moment shows that vaccines represent a more effective and easier method to stop the virus.
Despite new case numbers falling in Virginia, people are still getting sick and dying because of COVID-19, she noted.
“Things are going in the right direction, people are protected, we’re seeing fewer cases, but we still have almost half the population out there that is at risk. And if one of them is infected and not vaccinated, they can cause a bunch more cases,” Dr. Hungerford said. “Both [masks and vaccines] are effective and when you put them together, it’s great. But we have a choice to move from one to the other, so the promise of 'how do we end this pandemic?' is here.”
Dr. Hungerford encouraged anyone who still has questions about face covering guidance or the COVID-19 vaccines to do their own research or speak to a medical professional directly.