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The spread of new variants, including delta, may lead to increased spread of the novel coronavirus. View Apart/Getty Images
  • Experts are considering whether vaccinated people should continue to wear masks during the pandemic.
  • They say vaccination doesn’t mean there’s no risk of acquiring the virus.
  • The spread of new variants, including delta, may complicate understanding the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

With the delta variant spreading across the United States and the increasing number of states dropping pandemic mask mandates, experts warn that even those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may be at risk.

Considering the threat presented by delta and other coronavirus variants, should vaccinated people continue to wear masks? Experts say vaccination doesn’t mean you’re completely protected from developing COVID-19.

“Although the chance of contracting COVID-19 is low once an individual has been vaccinated, it is not zero,” Teresa Murray Amato, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York, told Healthline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of July 7, about 55 percent of Americans have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and roughly 47 percent of all Americans have been fully vaccinated.

However, new variants may present new risks.

The Times of Israel reported this week that recent research found that Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine is “less effective” against delta at about 60 percent protective. However, it was still over 90 percent protective against hospitalization. Another preprint of a study found an mRNA vaccine to be effective against a lambda variant, which was discovered in Peru.

The continuing evolution of the novel coronavirus with new variants presents vaccinated people with a critical decision about whether to mask up.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said last week in a briefing that vaccines are still highly effective against the variants and that the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are in unvaccinated people.

“Our authorized vaccines provide protection against the circulating variants in this country, including delta,” she said in the briefing. “Vaccination is how we protect these individuals, families, and communities, and prevent severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19.”

Amato advised that people with a high chance of severe disease should consult a healthcare professional regarding mask use.

“If you are vulnerable to a poor outcome with a COVID-19 infection due to an underlying condition, please speak to your doctor regarding the risk and benefits of wearing a mask,” she said.

She added that masks reduce transmissions.

“We know that vaccination and masking wearing decrease the spread of COVID-19,” said Amato. “The more we can decrease transmission, the more we can decrease that chance of new variants emerging.”

The County of Los Angeles Public Health already “strongly recommends” masking for all regardless of vaccination status.

“With increase circulation of the highly transmissible delta variant, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) strongly recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in public places as a precautionary measure,” according to a July 1 press release from the agency.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks indoors and practice physical and social distancing as the delta variant increases in many parts of the world.

Amato noted that the unpredictability of the pandemic creates difficulty in informing public health policy.

“As we continue to move through the many phases of the COVID pandemic, we continue to have challenges regarding recommendations for donning masks,” she said.

The current CDC guidance is that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing.

“I do not believe that the CDC needs to change guidance at this time for vaccinated people as there is very good evidence that vaccinated people are very rarely infected with COVID-19,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health for Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York.

He emphasized that when vaccinated people acquire the coronavirus, “they have extremely mild symptoms and are less able to pass on disease to other people, especially when others are also fully vaccinated.”

He said, however, unvaccinated people should “absolutely” wear masks until they’re vaccinated because they are at risk of contracting and experiencing more severe disease due to variants. He added that COVID-19 variants don’t represent a significant threat to vaccinated people.

Cioe-Peña stressed that the delta variant and others (like delta plus) are more contagious and can result in greater severity of illness.

“Fortunately, all of the vaccines approved in the United States have demonstrated very good efficacy against delta and all other circulating variants,” he said.

He also cautioned that a variant could develop that would dodge vaccine-induced immunity, “as has been demonstrated in some of the vaccines that are not approved for use in the United States but are being used throughout the world,” he added.

The presence of the delta variant should be a “very sobering reminder” that the pandemic is not over, Cioe-Peña said.

“We must continue to vaccinate the world and the rest of the United States,” he said. “We are not done. There is still much work to be done, and we cannot relax just because we are winning.”

There is controversy over whether fully vaccinated people need to continue to wear masks and follow physical distancing.

While the WHO recommends that everyone needs to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, the CDC maintains that fully vaccinated people don’t have to do so.

Experts insist the currently approved vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19 and its known variants. However, they also say that those with a high chance of experiencing severe disease should consult a health professional before deciding to stop wearing masks.