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Wearing Masks While Vaccinated May Protect Vulnerable Family Members

Dad wearing a mask putting a mask on a child


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Key Takeaways

  • CDC guidelines say that fully vaccinated individuals can stop wearing masks and social distancing.
  • Living with unvaccinated or vulnerable family members may necessitate vaccinated members wearing masks.
  • Uncertainty surrounding the delta variant could increase the need for vaccinated people to continue wearing masks.

Mom and Dad are vaccinated. Older teens are vaccinated. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines say in many instances, they no longer have to wear masks.

But how do parents handle children under 12 who are not able to get the vaccine? Should everyone then wear masks to protect them? Experts say possibly in some instances, especially considering the new delta variant. The key is taking your circumstances into account and ensuring that the most vulnerable among you are protected.

Staying Unmasked, But Remaining Cautious

Masks are meant to serve as a barrier to protect against respiratory droplets entering the air. If a person carrying the COVID-19 virus coughs, sneezes, or even talks, those droplets they emit can transmit the virus to someone else.

Once someone receives the vaccine, there is less risk of them being able to get sick from the virus or share the infection with another person. Ideally, that includes the unvaccinated person in their home.

Kunjana Mavunda, MD, MPH

[Vaccinated people] have antibodies in their airways that protect them from being colonized by the virus. If the older people who have been vaccinated have been exposed to the virus, their immune system will fight the virus so they will not have the virus in their airway. If they don’t have the virus in their airway, they will not be able to transmit it.

— Kunjana Mavunda, MD, MPH

Vaccinations do not erase the risk of transmitting or succumbing to COVID altogether, but they do significantly lessen the chance of spreading it and reduce the severity of viral symptoms if exposed.

“[Vaccinated people] have antibodies in their airways that protect them from being colonized by the virus. If the older people who have been vaccinated have been exposed to the virus, their immune system will fight the virus so they will not have the virus in their airway. If they don’t have the virus in their airway, they will not be able to transmit it,” states Kunjana Mavunda, MD, MPH, KIDZ Medical Services, a pediatric pulmonologist and former medical director of epidemiology and disease control at the Miami-Dade Department of Health.

Dr. Mavunda also explains that because of their age, younger children have less chance of infection. Although they should still wear masks in public if not vaccinated, the fact that their age provides some measure of protection may explain why older vaccinated family members don’t always have to don masks.

“The COVID virus attacks the airways of people through special cells that are more susceptible to the virus transmission. Children who are less than 2 years of age don’t have those receptors, so they are going to be less susceptible to viruses, like COVID,” Dr. Mavunda explains.

She notes that as children get older, those receptors increase, and so does the risk of becoming infected. That fact can be reassuring to the parents of young children, but it’s still important to be aware of advised precautions. 

Additionally, the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 may lead to putting additional safeguards in place, including mask-wearing.

What Do the Guidelines Say?

As of late July, more than 163 million people in the United Sates have been vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning they have received the full dosage of the vaccine. For those people, the CDC says they can resume life as normal.

In general, they don’t have to wear a mask and don’t need to socially distance themselves. There are still some testing precautions that should be adhered to when traveling. But the good news is, the guidelines restore some sense of normalcy to the lives of those who have been vaccinated.

Vaccinations are only available to individuals ages 12 and older; that means children are not yet eligible. But when they are in the same household as vaccinated individuals, the risk of transmission is low. More precautions may be needed when going out in public, though.

Factors to Weigh

Experts say that although vaccinated family members don’t have to wear masks when going out, there are considerations they should keep in mind. Here is what you should consider:

  • Age of other family members: If vaccinated individuals live with an elderly family member, whether or not that elderly family member is vaccinated, it may be a good idea for the household to wear masks when going out.
  • Immunity status: Although vaccinated against COVID-19, people with compromised immune systems will want to think about additional safety precautions. Other diseases, along with some medications, can cause the immune system to be weakened. Having the entire family wear masks may help keep that person safe.
  • New variants: The Delta variant of the virus is spreading rapidly. Wearing masks can help keep vaccinated and unvaccinated family members safe from the latest strain.
  • Environment: Are you in a closed, indoor space? Is it crowded? Is air circulating properly? If it is not a well-ventilated location and is filled with people, wearing masks may be a good idea.

 

How to Get Kids to Keep on Masks

Families may decide to have everyone mask up as a sign of solidarity for the younger members. Also, some children respond better when they have an adult or older sibling to emulate. In those situations, wearing a mask may be beneficial for all involved.  

Maria Isabel Rosas, MD

The [CDC] guidelines are there to offer certain guidance. It’s the recommendation. Ultimately, it’s your personal decision in terms of what risk you’re willing to take and how do you want to continue to protect your family. I think right now there is a lot of uncertainty with the Delta variant. If we didn’t have the Delta variant, then maybe, I wouldn’t be making the recommendations.

— Maria Isabel Rosas, MD

You can also shoot straight with them about the importance of staying protected. Let them know they are wearing a mask to make sure they don’t get sick. Hopefully, they will be able to get rid of their mask just like the older kids soon.

"In my experience, the truth is kids have been wonderful about mask-wearing.... A lot of the kids understand the reason behind the mask, and they themselves are choosing to wear them," states Maria Isabel Rosas, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist, Kidz Medical Services.

Dr. Rosas notes that with so many remaining unknown variables surrounding the COVID-19 virus, wearing masks may still be one of the best sources of protection, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

“The [CDC] guidelines are there to offer certain guidance. It’s the recommendation. Ultimately, it’s your personal decision in terms of what risk you’re willing to take and how do you want to continue to protect your family. I think right now there is a lot of uncertainty with the Delta variant. If we didn’t have the Delta variant, then maybe, I wouldn’t be making the recommendations,” she concludes. 

What This Means For You

It’s exciting to get back to pre-COVID behavior after being vaccinated. However, knowing some people are not vaccinated and also trying to set an example for your youngster may lead to still wearing masks. You also want to weigh the concerns with new variants of the virus. The key is to read the guidance, take appropriate measures, and do what is best to keep your family safe.

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