For How Long Do We Need to Wear Masks and Social Distance?

Dr. Paul Offit discusses what should be considered related to changing our approach to wearing masks and social distancing.


For how long do we 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 the end of January 2022. We've been at this pandemic now for almost two years, and I think people are pretty much worn down by it. And one of the questions that people ask is, for how long am I going to have to wear a mask? For how long am I going to social distance? Or said another way, when can we say that this pandemic is not a pandemic anymore but is endemic. And that definition is a lot fuzzier than you would think.

The definition really is that you go from pandemic to endemic when the virus no longer really affects the way that we live anymore. In other words, that we still go to movie theaters without masks. We go to restaurants without masks. That we do everything we were always doing before this pandemic. And how do we know that we've gotten to that point? I think that it's really going to be a matter of what we can live with.

This virus, SARS-CoV-2, is going to be with us for years, if not decades. I think it will probably always raise its head in the winter and it will always cause a certain percentage of the population to suffer and be hospitalized and die, as is true every year with influenza. I mean, two years before this pandemic hit the United States, influenza caused about 700,000 hospitalizations in this country and caused 60,000 people to die. The year before the pandemic, influenza caused about 400,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths. We live with that. If we, if we masked and social distanced every winter, we could decrease the incidence of influenza, but we don't. We say this is OK. We can live with this.

SARS-CoV-2 will get to that point, too. I'm not sure when. I mean, I think what we're able to live with is going to be something that's going to be hard to determine exactly, but I would expect, and again I'm talking to you now from the end of January 2022, is that as we move into spring and then summer, you're going to see a dramatic decrease in the incidence of hospitalizations and deaths. Plus, we have about 90% of the population that is really protected either because they've been naturally infected or immunized or both. So, I think then the question will become, what happens when we hit next sort of late fall/early winter in terms of the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths, and are we going to be willing to live with that?

But I think certainly as we move into spring and summer, as the numbers come down dramatically, I suspect there's going to be far less of a pressure to wear masks in the society, but we’ll see. 

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Feb 18, 2022