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Health experts weigh in on whether to continue masking

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are still hundreds of thousands of COVID cases reported in the U.S. each week, along with a few thousand COVID-related deaths. But mask mandates - remember those? - are pretty much a thing of the past.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Some are still masking, many aren't. So what should you do? We decided to get advice from a few COVID experts.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: When we go out to the supermarket or any other activity that's indoors where there'll be a group of people, we continue to be masked.

FADEL: That's Dr. William Schaffner. He's a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Schaffner says he and his wife are pretty careful because they're at higher risk for serious illness if they get infected. They're also caring for a loved one who's undergoing chemotherapy.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Bob Wachter is the chair of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco.

BOB WACHTER: I have come to calibrate my mask-wearing based on my best educated guess as to the possibility that someone has COVID and also how important it is for me to do the thing without a mask.

FADEL: Wachter makes the call on a case-by-case basis. Outside, no mask. A small gathering where everyone's vaccinated, he would drop mask there, too, especially if everyone just tested negative and there's an open window. But when he goes into a crowded theater or an airplane...

WACHTER: Those places, I'm wearing a mask now. And I suspect I will wear a mask forever. Forever's a long time. But the threat of COVID now, I think, is probably not all that different than it'll be a year from now or five years from now.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at UCSF, says there is far less need for masking now, given the immunity provided by infections and vaccines. Still, she says, everyone needs to assess their own risk.

MONICA GANDHI: I've been just riveted by what I think are very impressive results. These vaccines are really powerful in terms of what they were designed to do, which is to prevent severe disease.

FADEL: Wachter notes that he's fully vaccinated and no longer worries about becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID.

WACHTER: I worried a lot about that three years ago, but that's not my concern now. My concern and the reason I'm still moderately careful is I don't want to get COVID and be laid up for a week or however long. And I don't want to get long COVID.

MARTÍNEZ: And Wachter says masking has also helped him avoid catching upper respiratory infections. So while he'd rather ditch the mask altogether, he says occasionally wearing one is a relatively small price to pay to stay healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF WANG WEN'S "MAIL FROM THE RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.