No, Masks Shouldn’t Still Be Required For Vaccinated Travelers. Why Do You Ask?

The Points Guy ran a piece promoting continued mask-wearing after full vaccination, framed as a recommendation from “health professionals.”

What prompts this is the World Health Organization recommending continued mask-wearing after full vaccination. What no one seems to report is that the World Health Organization isn’t offering advice to the United States but to the world and often to countries that are relying on China’s Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines which have lower levels of efficacy and likely much lower levels of reduction in spread. Chile, for instance, has continued to battle an epidemic despite vaccinating around two-thirds of its population (at least one dose, largely of the Coronavac vaccine).

The mRNA vaccines which represent the bulk of vaccinations in the U.S. have been reported by the CDC to be 90% effective against asymptomatic disease and likely even more effective than that against spread, since an asymptomatic vaccinated carrier will likely have a lower viral load, and shed virus for a shorter period of time.

It seems clear that the “Delta variant” of Covid-19 is more transmissible. And it’s going to cause clusters of cases in the U.S. focused largely on areas where vaccination rates are lower and especially where immunity from prior infection remains low. However at a population level it appears that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines remain protective. And older Americans, most at risk from the virus, also have higher rates of vaccination. So we shouldn’t see the same kind of overwhelming risk to the medical system we saw in earlier waves of the pandemic.

Indeed, even in the U.K. where cases have gone back up – where they’re relying predominantly on the less-effective AstraZeneca vaccine – they’re still seeing significant protection against severe disease. Hospitalization hasn’t risen in tandem with cases, yet at least.

We know that masks do have some effectiveness against spread of Covid-19. The best work seems to show a 25% reduction in spread with near-universal mask adoption. However what we mean by masking does too much of the work, and wearing 5 cent apiece blue paper masks from Target or Amazon does little to protect the wearer or others.

Good masks, universally and properly worn, do provide some measure of protection. And I plan to personally mask up in close quarter indoor settings, and on planes, during flu season. This is protection that Americans vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna do not appear to yet need from Covid-19, however.

TPG‘s sister health site makes this argument, and I don’t quite buy it,

“Mask wearing has proven to be an effective way to slow the spread,” Yu said.

“Vaccinations have allowed us to be together, but mask-wearing will continue to reduce the risks of variant spread and potential reversal of the openings. Knowing that this disease is mainly spread as aerosols, covering our mouth and nose is the most effective way [to reduce the spread].”

Mask wearing has been helpful especially where people wear decent masks and use them properly. There’s little risk of spread or severe disease once fully vaccinated, though some individuals may have lesser immune responses. Masks that are less-protective than N95s would be more protective of the wearer if the virus were spread primarily via respiratory droplets, rather than aerosols (cloth masks and thin paper masks aren’t going to help much with aerosols).

Oddly, the TPG piece ties continued mask-wearing for vaccinated individuals with “parts of Australia have gone into lockdown” which I’m truly perplexed by since Australia is pursuing a strategy of tamping down all outbreaks and eliminating community transmission, something the U.S. and most of the world that’s not an island nation isn’t in a position to follow. And most importantly because Australia flubbed its vaccine rollout. Very little prior infection in the population, combined with low vaccination rates, means nearly everyone remains vulnerable.

To be sure, there are reasons to still be concerned about Covid-19 even if a country has high penetration for an mRNA vaccine. For instance the rise in infections in Israel, even though the number of vaccinated people testing positive isn’t nearly as concerning as reports so far indicate.

The mask mandate is no longer needed on planes. This would mean the end of most unruly passenger behavior on board and a return to inflight alcohol in coach, on American Airlines at least.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Has it ever occurred to you that people who, for political reasons, are choosing to not get vaccinated, may claim to be and not wear a mask?

  2. I like how you published this with the data that looks good to you. Hospitalization in the UK data is on the rise. The variants are new unknowns due to low vaccination rates in many places.

    I still wear a mask because I do not trust that others are vaccinated, and I do not want to be one of the breakthrough cases. I have relatives who have been one of these.

    I take it based on the data and the trends in cases per 100k. In Miami (where I live) I will not eat indoors or go to an indoor bar. In Boston (where I work) there are virtually no cases and vaccination rates are significantly higher I have no issue eating indoors or going to a busy bar.

  3. Gary,

    since you totally ignore the relative lukewarm vaccination rate of all Americans, how can you responsibly endorse no mask mandate on board aircraft? are you an anti-vaxxer? doesn’t the fact that we aren’t even at 60% vaccination rate of all Americans make your comments horrible irresponsible? perhaps you should leave science and policy to those that know more about it than you do! stick to travel, please.

  4. @Michael Goldman – read the piece.

    1. The mask mandate isn’t why we have masks on planes. Airlines required them before the government got involved. The UK is lifting their mandate, BA and Virgin plan to keep their rules in place.

    2. Lots of people 12+ aren’t vaxxed. At this point that’s on them. If they choose not to get vaxxed, then other unvaxxed people might make them sick. Their foolish choice shouldn’t impose a burden on others (especially on those who are vaxxed with Pfizer or Moderna and aren’t likely to get or spread the virus)

  5. Gary,

    I did read the piece, and while you make some valid points, I still feel that given the general politicization and lack of generally responsible behavior regarding vaccine usage, your ( see how many people have had to be removed from aircraft over mask wearing) . your position that those of us, myself included shouldn’t be forced to wear masks, will only encourage those that refuse to get vaccinated, will not wear masks, and help continue the spread of Covid, and we will see additional variants emerge. At what point does a variant emerge that is vaccine resistant and endanger us all? Continuing mask wearing is still re responsible and sensible choice.

  6. Now we are all used to masks why not continue with them? What harm does it do? They reduced the numbers of colds and flu last winter so they protect us from people who refuse to stay home when they have these lesser diseases. It’s a no brainer – keep the mask.

  7. I’ve been vaccinated since March. My nephew’s family had COVID-19 last November and two have long COVID. Another nephew lost his mother-in-law to COVID last October.
    Unfortunately there are way too many people who refuse the vaccine and refuse to mask up, endangering themselves and others.
    I agree that the flight crew should not have to be the mask police, but marks are still necessary for the health of everyone at the airport on board planes.
    Since I am not an infectious disease expert, I will wait for the scientists to tell me when I can abandon masks when around unvaccinated people. I don’t want to be a breakthrough patient.
    Until we get the virus under control, my family and I will continue with sensible pandemic protocols, especially mask wearing and keeping our distance from others.
    Honestly, this past 18 months has proven that other people don’t want to do the right thing for the community. I just can’t trust people anymore.
    Mask up.

  8. I think all these people refusing to wear masks should have to wear all the gear their beloved military has to for a week & then dare to bitch about a piece of cloth on their face.

  9. The people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, for political reasons or because COVID is a conspiracy or simply the flu, are the most likely NOT to wear a mask. I’m vaccinated and I will wear a mask for as long as the virus continues to cause severe illness/death. It’s the least we can do for first responders and medical professionals.

  10. With all due respect, Gary Leff may well be one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points and business travel. This qualification does not, however, make him an expert in the field, study and science of epidemiology. As such, and as I often tell my professional colleagues and cronies, “stick to what you do best” and leave the rest up to the real experts.

  11. I will not debate the necessity for nor the statistics supporting wearing/not wearing of masks. But I would like to comment on your closing statement concerning unruly passenger incidents.

    1. Rules are rules: if you do not like the mask mandate which has been established by corporate management (not the ticket counter agent, nor gate agent, nor flight attendant, nor command pilot), then your choices clearly are to either not get on the aircraft, get on while complying with the rules and act civilized and leave it at that, or get on while complying with the rules, act civilized, and complain to corporate later in an email or letter about the policy. You may also blog, tweet, or facebook about it afterwards to your friends.
    2. Do not act like a jerk, no matter what. Acting like a jerk is a choice you need not make.
    3. Follow the example of the hundreds of thousands of hospital operating room personnel who wear masks for 8 hours or more a day for an entire career without complaint.

    Instead of being unruly just don’t fly, or write to corporate management and try to change the policy. Don’t take out your frustrations on the flight crew or fellow passengers.

  12. “The Points Guy ran a piece promoting continued mask-wearing after full vaccination, framed as a recommendation from “health professionals.””

    BUT remember that in these days of malpractice lawsuits and political hysteria, NO health professional in his/her right mind will go on the record and recommend no masks.

    So, take these “recommendations” with a grain of salt.

    Not all should be forced to get down to the level of the lowest common denominator.

    Those vaccinated, especially with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be allowed not to wear masks and not be forced to be grouped with the lowest common denominator, especially today when therapeutics are available early and that can avoid hospitalization.

    Now, if one has a low risk tolerance or has co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity, circulatory, pulmonary, etc. problems, then it should be left up to them if they want to wear a mask.
    These individuals should perhaps consider in avoiding all unnecessary travel.

    Just look at the absurdity of the current situation when a vaccinated person boards a flight, say to Europe where vaccinations are a primary entry requirement, and on the return flight to the U.S. you are forced to have a negative test in addition to being vaccinated, and in addition you are being forced to wear a mask for the duration of a 7-12 hour flight, in an airplane where the interior air is replenished once or twice a minute, in addition to being filtered thru surgical room quality air filters.
    In that case the chances of infection/transmission of the virus are essentially ZERO.
    And wearing a mask is essentially a placebo imposed upon yourself by the irrational fear of others.

    The CDC rule about masks on a plane was issued back in Jan/Feb, when the vaccinations were just starting.
    It’s high time that this placebo mask requirement be recalled in today’s situation where about 70% of the U.S. population is vaccinated and that number combined with the number of those who have recovered from the infection consists of above the 80% threshold of herd immunity, ESPECIALLY in the above flight example.

  13. It has always been my understanding that people wear masks to protect others. Wearing a mask isn’t intended to prevent you from getting sick. If you have a virus, wearing a mask ensures you don’t spread the virus to others.

    I grew up in North America. The first time I saw an Asian wearing a mask in NYC, I asked my friend about it. I thought the Asian person was afraid of catching a cold. My friend informed me that she was wearing a mask because she probably had a cold or flu and didn’t want to spread it to others.

    Additionally, I was told that being vaccinated reduces the effect of getting covid-19. It does not prevent you from getting it. It just prevents you from needing hospitalization.

    So even though I am fully vaccinated with Pfizer, I wear a mask. I try not to do anything which will expose me to the virus. However, in the off chance I get the virus and don’t realize it (being fully vaccinated means I might not even realize I got it), I don’t want to spread it to others who might not be fully vaccinated or might get in contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.

    If everything Gary has said is correct and I don’t wear a mask, things are fine.
    If everything Gary has said is incorrect and I don’t wear a mask, I might spread the virus.
    If anything Gary has said is correct and I do wear a mask, things are fine.
    If anything Gary has said is incorrect and I do wear a mask, things are fine.

    Therefore, not wearing a mask means I am not 100% certain that things are fine.
    But wearing a mask means regardless of the facts Gary is promoting, wearing a mask is fine.

  14. Well, hello from Germany.

    It’s pretty simple – you protect yourself from ending up in the hospital when you catch the virus by being vaccinated. But you can still transfer the virus to others even when you are vaccinated. Therefore you wear a mask to protect others. What’s there not to understand????

  15. As has been said, you wear a mask to prevent infecting OTHERS. Vaccinations protect you, but none are 100%. You CAN still catch Covid, be asymptomatic and then infect others. How selfish are you when wearing a simple face covering to protect OTHERS for a few hours on a plane is too big of an ask ? Pitiful.

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