Do We Still Need to Wear Masks and Social Distance?

Masks and social distancing were critical for keeping people healthy before we had treatments and vaccines to protect us against COVID-19. Now, people wonder if they still need to use such measures.

In this video, Dr. Paul Offit discusses the bigger picture, addressing how to approach decision-making related to any respiratory illness, not just COVID-19, and considerations related to the role of COVID-19 at-home testing in the decision-making process. For example, he explains that anyone with respiratory symptoms, such as congestion, cough, runny nose or fever, should stay home, and if they need to go out in public, they should mask to limit the spread of the virus, whether it’s influenza, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or COVID-19. Lastly, he provides a context for consideration related to the harm that can be caused by some of these respiratory viruses, including rates of hospitalization and death.


Do we still need to wear masks and social distance?

Paul Offit, MD: Hi, my name is Paul Offit. I'm talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It's Thursday, December 1st, 2022. One question that people have is, when can we stop masking? When can we stop social distancing? The truth is, I think that's already largely happened.

One way to define a pandemic is that it changes the way that you live, work or play, and that you move from pandemic to endemic when it doesn't change the way you live, work or play. I think that's really already largely happened. But these viruses still do circulate, not just the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, but also influenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus, and all the other winter respiratory virus.

I've had friends who've said to me that they have young children, say first and second graders, who when they have upper respiratory symptoms like congestion, cough, runny nose, fever, that they test them to see whether they have COVID, and when they don't, then they send them to school, as if that's the only disease that can be transmitted and cause harm. The fact of the matter is all of the viruses that I just mentioned can cause children to be hospitalized and to go to the intensive care unit and, worse, to die.

So, when should we mask? And I think I would argue that maybe we should just stop testing and that anytime any child has a respiratory virus, or an adult has a respiratory virus, that they should, while they're symptomatic, especially while they have fever, they should stay home. Then when they still have symptoms and they have to go to work or go out into the world, at least wear a mask and know that any of the viruses, whether it's SARS-CoV-2 or flu or paraflu or RSV, any of those viruses can cause harm. I mean, for two years before the SARS-CoV-2 virus came into the United States, influenza caused 800,000 hospitalizations and about 60,000 deaths. Yet in 2020 when we did mask and social distance and close businesses and close schools and restricted travel, there was virtually no influenza. So, you certainly can affect the transmission of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus if you mask and social distance. But I think that we don't have to do that all the time for everybody. I think we should really focus on those people who have respiratory viruses and, in many ways, treat them all the same. I think, in all likelihood, what's going to happen with COVID is it will start to settle down and have the same kind of statistics as influenza or RSV. Remember, RSV kills 6,000 to 10,000 elderly adults every year.

So, all of these viruses are dangerous, and maybe we'll get to the point where we treat them all the same, where for those people who are symptomatic with a respiratory virus that they will not suffer the sin, if you will, of presenteeism, where they go to work or go to school knowing that they are contagious with the respiratory virus.

Thank you.

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Dec 20, 2022