Should I Mask? These Are the CDC's Guidelines for Vaccinated and Unvaccinated People

Mask guidance is constantly changing, leaving families with plenty of questions. Who should mask? Which masks offer the best protection? How does vaccination status come into play? Here are the latest recommendations from the CDC.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

After two years of the pandemic, most Americans have stocked up on face masks to help protect their families from COVID-19 infection, but recommendations continue to shift. Parents are wondering: Should my family wear masks? What kind of mask offers the best protection? Do we need to continue wearing masks if we're vaccinated? Here's the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The Latest CDC Mask Guidance

In February 2022, the CDC changed its mask guidance to reflect the recent decrease in coronavirus cases. Many Americans have boosted immunity—either from vaccination or past infection—which lowers the risk of severe symptoms. This, in turn, puts less stress on the health care system.

In the new guidelines, each county in America is given a COVID-19 Community Level (low, medium, or high) based on "hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area," says the organization. Recommended protocols vary for each community level.

You can view the CDC's color-coded map to see the community level for your specific county, then practice the following guidelines, regardless of vaccination status. The new recommendations also apply to students and staff in K-12 schools.

Low Community Levels (Green): You don't need to wear masks indoors. However, you can choose to do so based on your personal preference and level of risk.

Medium Community Levels (Yellow): Talk to your health care provider about masking if you're immunocompromised or at high risk of COVID-19 complications. Also, if you're coming in close contact with someone who is high risk, consider getting testing beforehand and masking indoors with them.

High Community Levels (Orange): Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear a well-fitting mask in indoor public spaces. If you're immunocompromised or high risk, choose masks with a respirator; this offers greater protection from COVID-19.

Of course, regardless of your community level of COVID-19, you can always choose to wear a mask for personal protection. People must also continue masking on public transportation (planes, trains, buses, etc.), in U.S. transportation hubs, and in health care settings.

What's more, if you have a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, wear a mask whenever you interact with someone—even members of your household. For example, you should wear it "when you are sharing a room, in a vehicle, visiting the doctor, or going to the grocery store," says Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D., senior core faculty member for Walden University's Master of Public Health program.

And while isolation and quarantine time has been shortened, the CDC still recommends that individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 wear a mask around others for at least five days following isolation or quarantine.

What Type of Mask Should My Family Wear?

If you're in an area with high community levels, or if you choose to wear a mask for added protection, you're probably wondering which type is best. As it turns out, recent studies have shown that widely popular cloth masks might not be as effective against the Omicron, variant, and some experts recommend using surgical masks or respirators (like KN95s and N95s) instead.

"Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection," says the CDC. When used properly, N95 masks filter out 95 percent of all airborne particles, including those that cause COVID-19 infection.

Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses that this mask guidance applies to anyone over age 2. Younger babies should never wear masks because of suffocation risks; they can't let you know if they're struggling to breathe.

Mask Mandates at State and Local Levels

Despite mask recommendations by the CDC, state and local governments can decide for themselves whether to change their guidelines. Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should always follow the mandates issued by their lawmakers.

Should My Child Wear a Mask to School?

Previously, the CDC encouraged universal indoor masking for all students and staff in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. But now the CDC's guidance for schools aligns with their new COVID-19 community level recommendations. This means that most students and staff are no longer advised to wear masks in educational settings (about 70 percent of the country now lives in low- or medium-risk locations, where masks can come off).

School boards can also make masking decision themselves, as long as the state doesn't have an indoor mask mandate.

How to Wear a Face Mask Properly

Face masks work by containing droplets that might be contaminated with COVID-19, which can be released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or breaths. Masks also protect against "airborne particles" that stick around after coughing, sneezing, talking, or exhaling.

Wearing face masks improperly may actually increase your risk of the coronavirus, according to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. That's because infected particles could seep through the edges if you adjust the mask or take it off improperly. Here is the proper way to use one.

1. Choose the right mask. The CDC recommends wearing "a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection." Some health experts say cloth masks should be nixed and that families should reassess what they're using—especially if they've had the same masks since March 2020. Others are recommending the use of KN95 or N95 masks in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In an October 2020 study, the CDC did note that "the filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly."

2. Wash your hands. According to Dr. Ferraro, you should wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can also use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in a pinch.

3. Put on the mask. "Cover your mouth and nose with the mask and pull the straps over the back of your head," says Dr. Ferraro. "Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask."

4. Don't fidget with it. When wearing the mask, you should avoid touching your face and the mask, or else you risk letting infected particles get inside.

5. Replace when needed. Throw away disposable masks—as well as respirators that become wet or dirty—after one use. "To remove the mask, take it off from behind, discard it immediately in a closed trash can, and clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer," says Dr. Ferraro. If you're wearing a respirator that's not wet or dirty, check the manufacturer's instructions to learn when to dispose of it. Wash cloth masks at least once daily or when they become wet or dirty. "You can either wash and dry your masks by hand or use a washer and dryer," says the CDC.

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