Should You Follow the CDC’s New Face Mask Guidance? Harvard Expert Weighs In

"CDC guidance is important, but having a sense about how to stay clean of the virus is also important."

Tourist wearing protective respiratory masks wait on St. Peter’s Square prior to the Pope’s weekly Angelus prayer on February 2, 2020 in the Vatican. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

Can we stop wearing face masks if the CDC says so even when there are still over 35,000 new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. every day? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear face masks or social distance in both outdoor and indoor situations.

“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a White House COVID-19 briefing.”The science demonstrates that if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected…You certainly could wear a mask if you wanted to, but we are saying in those settings, based on the science, that it is safe.”

The new guidance is a dramatic turn from the CDC’s recommendations earlier in the pandemic, which encouraged healthy people to wear masks mainly for the benefit of others. The new guidelines seem to focus on mask wearing only for one’s own protection, because vaccinated people can still potentially host and spread the virus to others.

“It is the people who are not fully vaccinated in those settings [and] not wearing a mask, who are not protected,” Walensky said.

“I could understand the new guidance. But frankly we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and we should be thinking clearly about the risk we face,” said David Edwards, aerosol science expert, Harvard University professor and founder of FEND. “CDC guidance is important, but having a sense ourselves about how to stay clean of the virus is also important.”

For those who have not yet been fully vaccinated, Edwards recommends keeping the masks on and social distancing in high-risk situations. When traveling, for example, you should even wear double masks, Edwards said. “The risks exist for sure, especially for long flights.”

Another major consideration not often talked about is hydration. “It’s not so much about drinking a lot of water, but about having your upper airway well hydrated,” Edwards told Observer. “Science has shown that breathing very dry air increases your risk, because a dry upper airway creates a lot of respiratory droplets, which carry pathogens that could infect yourself and other people. And a lot of air conditioned environments are very dry.”

Edwards recommends having a humidifier at home and carrying a spray mist bottle when you go on a trip. A bonus tip is to sprinkle a little bit of salt in your liquid. “The way your lung keeps your upper airway hydrated is through salt,” he explained. “When you deliver droplets to your upper airway with certain types of salts that are in your body, it leads to extra hydration that reduces your risk [of getting sick].”

The CDC still says fully vaccinated people should wear face masks when it’s required by state or local laws. Its new guidance also doesn’t apply to health care settings, correctional facilities and homeless shelters. Should You Follow the CDC’s New Face Mask Guidance? Harvard Expert Weighs In