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Will masks be mandatory after the vaccine arrives?

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved by the FDA but President-elect Biden will encourage mask-wearing to combat the rising infection rate and death toll.

Will masks be mandatory after the vaccine arrives?
CHIP SOMODEVILLA AFP

Both health experts and prominent government officials have agreed that mask-wearing will play a key role in limiting the number of lives lost to covid-19. Although not 100% effective, a simple mask will reduce the infection rate considerably and help to protect the most vulnerable from the deadly virus.

President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly encouraged people to wear masks and made coronavirus precaution a central part of his election campaign. The news that the US has approved its first covid-19 vaccine was cause for celebration this week but with over 3,000 daily deaths mask-wearing remains as important as ever.

Pfizer vaccine will not have an immediate impact

On Friday the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorisation for the first coronavirus vaccine in the US. The ground-breaking Pfizer/BioNTech drug is still awaiting approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before vaccinations can begin, but that is expected in the coming days.

But although the roll-out is imminent there is a lot of work still to be done during the most deadly period of the pandemic. A limited supply of the vaccine means that only 2.9 million high-risk individuals will be vaccinated during the first phase, with care home residents and healthcare workers the first to receive it. As it stands the US is set to receive 100 million doses of the vaccine by March 2021 but given that each recipient requires two doses, it will be some time before a significant proportion of the country is vaccinated.

Experts call on mask-wearing to be a priority in coming months

The Pfizer vaccine exceeded all expectations in clinical trials with an efficacy of around 95%. However while that headline number is promising there is still a lot that is still unknown about the long-term impact that it will have on the pandemic. There is also the implication that one in every twenty people who receive the vaccine are still susceptible to covid-19.

Dr Anthony Fauci has led the government’s pandemic response since the outset and will serve as chief medical advisor to the Biden administration. Speaking last month, Dr Fauci made clear that mask-wearing should not end with the vaccine.

“I would recommend to people to not to abandon all public health measures just because you’ve been vaccinated,” he told CNN. “Even though for the general population it might be 90 to 95 percent effective, you don’t necessarily know for you how effective it is.”

“I can feel more relaxed in essentially not having the stringency that we have right now. But I think abandoning it completely would not be a good idea,” he added.

Biden administration will focus on mask-wearing

Throughout the election campaign Joe Biden was the candidate who encourage mask-wearing, while President Trump openly mocked him for taking this simple precaution. When President-elect Biden takes office on 20 January he has pledged to impose mask mandates where he has that power.

This would likely see face coverings become mandatory in federal buildings, on interstate travel and in other jurisdictions controlled by the federal government. In most other areas it is up to the states to decide their own policies on mask-wearing, but Biden has said he intends to work with Governors and Mayors to encourage the implementation of mask mandates more widely.

Biden has also said that his time in office will begin with “100 days to mask”, a measure that he hopes will see the US bring its spiralling infection rate and death toll under control. He said of the plan: "Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction.”