On Thursday April 13, Centre for Disease Control (CDC) announced that people who have been fully vaccinated can now resume activities without wearing a mask.
With only 37.6 per cent of the United States population fully vaccinated, questions arise as there is no concrete data that supports vaccinations completely eliminating the risk of transmission.
“There is no question that the vaccines are effective. It’s amazing how effective these vaccines are in terms of preventing symptomatic disease,” says Dr. Joseph Kim, the physician director of Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) Canada.
“I think there is a biological reason to assume that if you are not infected with the virus, and if the vaccine protects you against symptomatic infection and asymptomatic infection then there is also going to be some impact presumably against transmission to other people.”
Canada hasn't hit the 'magic number' to take off masks, yet
However, going mask-free in-midst of a pandemic, still may not be the soundest choice, especially for countries like Canada who have had a slow start in mass vaccinations.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is a chance that those who have received vaccinations may be asymptomatic spreaders.
“Experts are concerned that vaccinated people can still become infected without symptoms and then spread it to others who have not been vaccinated yet,” says the Clinic’s article explaining why you shouldn’t stop wearing your mask till herd immunity is achieved.
Herd immunity is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when the population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection, according to the World Health Organization.
For this to be achieved, the majority of the population need to get fully vaccinated. However, so far, there is no consensus on what percentage of people is needed to make this possible.
“I think we are all kind of looking for that magic number, magic threshold and I can be honest with you I don’t know what that magic number is,” says Dr. Kim.
Why Canada won't be able to go mask-free like the United States
According to him, the concept of herd immunity is being discussed extensively in the medical communities, with no straightforward answer established just yet.
“Especially in situations where there is ongoing transmission, and the vast majority of the population has not been vaccinated fully, in my opinion, I think it’s too premature to adopt the no masking policy,” says Dr. Kim. “I think the majority of the population should have the full doses before they can do away with the entire public health recommendation as far as masking.”
While the CDC underlines social distancing and mask wearing are still to be practiced in places “required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” big chain stores like Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s have announced that they will be allowing vaccinated shoppers to go mask free in certain locations.
This is a decision that is out of reach for Canada at the moment, as the country has only completed the full vaccination of 5 per cent of its population.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily applicable to our Canadian context, just because our vaccine rates and availability are quite different,” says Dr. Kim.
“Until such a point that the majority of the population has been vaccinated, I don’t know that we would necessarily jump to the mask-free policy that they have gone to in the States,” he says. “I don’t know if we are going to get there in one single step, it’s probably incremental at best.”
Lower transmission, and a high percentage of vaccinations is the key to these less restrictive policies the United States has started to implement, according to Dr. Kim.
“I think at some point, hopefully, we can start easing some of these restrictions including masking but in the short term, I don’t know if that’s what is feasible.”
Currently, the Public Health Agency of Canada is advising every individual to wear a mask and practice social distancing when you're in a shared space (indoors or outdoors) with people from outside your immediate household and/or advised by your local public health authority.