During the COVID‑19 pandemic, face masks have played an important role in preventing illness. Wearing a well-fitted mask over your nose and mouth is a simple and effective way to reduce the spread of the virus from person to person.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its recommendations for who should wear a mask and when. Many parents have questions about this change. Carla Garcia Carreno, M.D., a Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Children's Health℠, explains the new face mask guidelines and the best ways to keep your family healthy.
When should I wear a face mask?
Wearing a face mask can help protect you and others from COVID‑19. When you wear a face mask may depend on the level of COVID‑19 in your community, as well as your family's comfort level and risk factors for severe illness.
In general, everyone over age 2 should wear a face mask when:
- You are in public indoor places where COVID‑19 levels are high in the community, regardless of your vaccination status.
- You have symptoms of or have tested positive for COVID‑19 and need to be around others.
- You are caring for someone who has COVID‑19.
- You are in situations where masks are required, such as in health care settings or when traveling on planes, buses and other forms of public transportation.
If you or someone in your family is at increased risk for severe disease, you may also choose to wear a mask more often to increase protection. This includes people over the age of 65 and people with weakened immune systems or health conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. You can also consider if you have young children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
"We've seen that people who are unvaccinated are at higher risk for severe illness than those who are vaccinated," says Dr. Garcia Carreno. "In general, children under 5 are at lower risk for severe illness than others, but that risk is not zero, especially if they have a health condition. I recommend parents consider community levels, your family's risk factors and guidance from your child's pediatrician."
What is my COVID‑19 community level?
To find the level of COVID‑19 in your area, visit the CDC community level website. You can enter your location to see if your community has low, medium or high levels of COVID‑19. These levels are based on hospitalizations, hospital capacity and the number of new cases in your area.
The CDC offers the following mask recommendations for each level:
- Low: Wear a mask based on your personal preference and level of risk.
- Medium: Those at high risk for severe illness should talk to their health care provider about wearing a mask.
- High: Everyone should wear a mask in public indoor places, regardless of vaccination status or risk level.
It's important to know that no matter your COVID‑19 community level, you can choose to wear a mask to increase protection against COVID‑19.
"Remember, the CDC guidelines are guidance, not a mandate," says Dr. Garcia Carreno. "You can make your own informed decision, and if you have questions, ask your family's health care provider. They can help you understand your personal risk factors and precautions to take."
Why did the CDC update their mask recommendations?
These mask recommendations were updated to reflect how the pandemic has changed and how we have adapted to the virus.
Prior CDC mask recommendations were based on vaccination status and the number of COVID‑19 cases in an area. Now, mask recommendations also factor in the number of resources a community has available to treat COVID‑19 illness.
"The level of immunity that the community has at this point based on vaccination and natural immunity is higher than it was before," says Dr. Garcia Carreno. "We also have more resources and treatments available. We're at a great advantage compared to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic, and this is an attempt to return to some sense of normalcy."
4 tips to remember about masks and COVID‑19
1. Guidance about masks could change in the future.
You might be tempted to toss those masks, but don't get rid of them yet. If your community level is high, it's important to wear a mask in public indoor places regardless of vaccination status or if you have risk factors for severe illness. Guidance could change depending on the future of the pandemic, such as if another highly contagious variant of the virus develops.
2. You can still take steps to keep your family healthy.
Masks are one layer of protection against COVID‑19. It's important to take other steps to keep your family healthy.
Most importantly, make sure everyone in your family who is eligible to get vaccinated is up to date on their COVID‑19 vaccines and boosters. Continue to use proper handwashing techniques. You can also choose to avoid crowds, especially indoors. Know when and where to get tested for COVID‑19, and talk to your physician about access to COVID‑19 treatments if needed.
3. It's important to be kind about mask-wearing.
Remember that everyone's situation is different. We may see some people wearing masks and others not based on their own family's health. You should model respectful and kind behavior for your child and focus on what you can control – which is your own actions.
"We need to be in a community where we respect each other," says Dr. Garcia Carreno. "Be understanding that people still have risk factors, and many families may choose to continue masking for their health."
4. If you have questions, talk to your primary care provider or pediatrician.
Your health care provider knows you and your health best. If you are unsure if it is safe to stop wearing a mask based on your risks, your doctor can help you make this decision.
Learn more about COVID‑19
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.
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