Opinion | 3 Questions That Must Be Answered for Mask Mandates to Work

By Jennifer Nuzzo and Beth Blauer

Dr. Nuzzo is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ms. Blauer is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact.

Despite hopes of a summer free from Covid-19 worry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that vaccinated people wear masks in certain areas. While masks are important for protecting against infections, the United States must proceed carefully.

Health officials spent months assuring vaccinated Americans that they didn’t need to mask up against Covid-19 because they were protected from illness and were unlikely to spread infections to others. A return to masking for everyone could be interpreted as moving the goal posts or as a signal that experts are no longer as confident as they were in the vaccines — especially if new masking rules are not tied to specific metrics like vaccinations or if masking rules are in effect in places where hospitals are not dealing with crisis-level admissions.

There is a better way to carry out masking recommendations, by closely linking them to three specific factors:

Is Covid-19 spreading in areas where mask mandates are in effect?

Requiring everyone to wear masks may seem as if it can’t hurt, but experts shouldn’t waste time and credibility enforcing measures if they won’t have an impact.

Bringing back masks for everyone will be most effective if a significant amount of Covid-19 transmission is occurring in public spaces like grocery stores and dance clubs. But health officials haven’t shared sufficient data showing this is the case, and that’s a problem.

State and local health agencies need to have a better understanding of which activities are driving local transmission and tailor policy accordingly. For example, earlier in the pandemic, contact tracing revealed that high levels of transmission were happening at family and friend gatherings in people’s homes — like for holidays and birthdays — where masks are less common. If this remains true, then mask mandates alone will not be enough to cut back on rising cases.

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