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Is It Time to Wear a Mask Again?

COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising as new variants emerge

spinner image illustration of people wearing masks
Ada daSilva/Getty Images

Crowded grocery stores, bustling airports, packed concerts and busy office buildings all shared one thing in common this spring and summer: noticeably fewer masks in sight.

But with COVID-19 cases on the rise, hospitalizations ticking up and new variants emerging, some people who had dropped the mask are wondering: Is it time to start wearing one again?

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“The short answer is, I think, yes,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine — especially if you are at high risk for a serious case of COVID-19.

Age is one factor that increases a person’s risk of severe disease. For instance, Schaffner says folks in their 70s are more at risk than people in their 60s, and people in their 80s are at higher risk than those in their 70s.

“In addition, as we get older, we have a tendency to accumulate chronic conditions, and if you have one or more of these things, it further increases the risk,” he says. Diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and obesity are a few examples of health issues that can make a person more vulnerable to the virus.

“I think you have to decide: What do I have to lose if I get COVID? Do I have the potential for some severe health consequences? Do I have the potential to miss out on important responsibilities?” says Marc Siegel, M.D., professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine. There’s also the potential for long COVID, protracted illness that research shows affects about 1 in 10 adults who have a coronavirus infection.

More than COVID

Experts say another reason to consider masking up in crowded situations is that other respiratory viruses that pose a threat to older adults — flu and RSV, for example — tend to pick up their activity in the fall and winter months. And a mask can help prevent an infection from these bugs as well, since they are transmitted the same way as the coronavirus.

Pointing to periods during the COVID-19 pandemic when masks were more widely used, Siegel says “the flu season stopped in its tracks.” There were approximately 5,000 deaths in the U.S. from the flu in the 2021–2022 season, federal data shows. In the years that preceded the pandemic, annual influenza death tolls ranged from 25,000 to 52,000. 

Similarly, cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) plummeted during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “And then, as soon as masks came off, suddenly there was a huge outbreak of RSV,” Siegel says. “So the viruses didn’t go away, they just didn’t have an opportunity to spread because people were wearing masks and washing their hands.” 

Take stock of your stash of masks 

If your mask supply has dwindled in the past several months and you need to restock, Siegel says they’re still relatively easy to find at pharmacies and major retailers. It’s also likely your doctor’s office or nearby hospital or health clinic has some on hand for patients and visitors. 


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As a refresher: Fit is important when it comes to the level of protection the mask will afford. That’s because “the mask is a filter that is supposed to hold back these viruses and catch them either on the way in or the way out,” Schaffner says.

You want the mask to fit snugly around your mouth and nose — not under. When you put it on, “make sure you’re breathing through the mask, not around it,” Schaffner says. 

Masks labeled N95 and KN95 are the best options, experts say. Looser fitting surgical masks are less effective but can still lower your risk of catching COVID and other respiratory viruses. Just remember: These masks are not washable, and getting soap and water on them can actually hamper their effectiveness.

While you’re checking your mask supply, take a look at your COVID-19 test inventory too. Running low? Consider picking up a few boxes amid this current COVID swell, which Siegel says will likely repeat every six months or so. If you come down with symptoms, a positive test could help you gain access to treatments designed to keep those symptoms from progressing.  

“This is a great time to sort of just refresh your memory and see what you would do in terms of being able to [put together a plan] to get yourself tested and get your COVID antivirals should you test COVID-19 positive,” says Andrew Pekosz, a professor of microbiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Masks and treatments are just two tools that can help you lower your odds of getting sick. A new batch of COVID-19 vaccines designed to target many of the variants that are currently circulating are expected in mid-September, health officials have said. That’s about the same time many doctors urge patients to get their flu shots, and both vaccines will help cut your risk of falling ill this fall and winter. A new vaccine for RSV is also available for adults 60 and older.

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