This week, British HuffPost reader Alison asked, “When will face masks be a thing of the past?”
Wearing a face mask in shops, hairdressers, or on public transport has become second nature to many of us in recent months. But with the rise of Covid-19 cases in the UK, some experts believe we should wear them even more frequently, for example when visiting a loved one’s home.
The question arises: will we ever stop wearing face masks? Or should we accept that they are part of life from now on? Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball with the answer, but we asked the experts for their best predictions.
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Arpana Verma, professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Manchester, says she can he imagine a time when face masks are no longer needed, but it is difficult to establish a time scale.
“I hope we return to an era where circulating coronavirus levels have been wiped out,” he tells HuffPost UK. “But, as with some cultures where they have repeated coronavirus outbreaks, wearing the mask for some is the norm.”
Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist and professor in the Department of Respiratory Sciences at the University of Leicester, agrees that the masks won’t be here forever, but it is likely to be a long way.
“Just like with the 2009 pandemic influenza virus, I think SARS-CoV-2 [the term for the virus that causes Covid-19] it will gradually become more adapted to humans, “he explains.” So more transmissible, less lethal, which will slowly increase our general herd immunity. This may reduce the need for masks, except in specific elderly / vulnerable groups. “
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Herd immunity occurs when a large percentage of the population has developed immunity to a virus, making it more difficult for the virus to spread. SARS-CoV-2 sheds slower than influenza, adds Dr. Tang, so the road to herd immunity is likely to be longer.
“Of course, if an effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is found and widely used, it will increase the overall immunity of the herd much more rapidly to further limit the spread of the virus,” he says.
There has been much discussion about when a vaccine will be available and whether life will “return to normal” by Christmas. Prof. Verma thinks the lead times for vaccines – and an eventual end of face masks – will be much longer.
“I think the spring of 2021 will be a time of hope where we will have much more evidence and effectiveness [solutions],” she says.
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But even with a vaccine, Dr. Tang warns that herd immunity could take a long time to settle.
“Looking at the rising rate of SARS-CoV-2 spread globally across sensitive populations – some with sporadic interventions of varying efficacy – without a vaccine, it may take 5 to 10 years to reach a level of naturally acquired herd immunity.” , he claims .
“With an effective and widely accessible vaccine – again, depending on how quickly this can be distributed and administered within specific populations, concurrent with the evolution of the virus into a more transmissible, less lethal and a naturally acquired immunity – maybe three for five years. ”
One challenge is that scientists still don’t know for sure how long immunity lasts, whether it’s acquired naturally or via a vaccine.
“Ironically, the more effective infection control interventions (masking, social distancing, isolation, etc.) are, the longer they may have to stay in place, as they will also reduce the herd immunity acquisition rate,” adds Dr. Tang.
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So, are we doomed to wear masks for the next decade? Not necessarily, adds Dr. Tang. Governments may decide to implement a “mask, mask” approach by reacting to local virus levels. This would at least limit the environmental waste generated by the masks.
“Some countries like New Zealand have very few cases of Covid-19 per million people, so it could be argued that masks are unnecessary below a certain incidence / prevalence rate of the Covid-19 threshold,” he says.
“But you will need a very efficient, effective, coordinated and rapid test / reporting system to keep these incidences up to date and accurate, to decide when universal masking is needed again.”
Such a program would not be “easy or cheap to set up or maintain,” he says, and would require regular testing within the community, not just for those who come to the hospital.
In short: you won’t be able to ditch your mask anytime soon. Our best hope lies in an effective vaccine, enhanced by an efficient tracking and tracing system. For now, invest in a comfortable, reusable mask that has as little impact on your life and the environment as possible.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but the guide may change as scientists learn more about the virus. To stay up to date on health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus is nhs.uk.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.