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Q&A: Why wear a mask after you've been vaccinated?

ABC10 Medical Expert Dr. Payal Kohli and 9NEWS Psychology Expert Dr. Max Wachtel explain why masks will likely be necessary post-pandemic.

DENVER — The first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Colorado inspiring hope that life may soon return to what it was like before the pandemic. But medical experts are warning people to hang onto their masks.

"People may be wondering this, and it’s a really good, question. If you're vaccinated, do you still need to wear a mask? The answer is yes," 9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli said.

There are a number of medical reasons behind continued mask-wearing according to Kohli.

RELATED: US on track to approve 2nd COVID-19 vaccine by end of week

9NEWS Medical Expert Dr. Max Wachtel said it's also likely going to be harder than some may expect to ditch the mask.

We put our questions about the continued use of masks to both experts. 

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: Why continue to wear masks once the general public is vaccinated and mask mandates are lifted? 

Kohli: "Number one, we don’t yet know whether the vaccine just protects the individual getting the vaccine, or also protects those around them. In other words, if I get the vaccine, is it just me that's going to be protected or will it also ensure that I can't transmit the virus to others? At this point, this is an unknown question. Number two, many of the people around us will not be able to get the vaccine. We don't have yet have data on pregnant women, on nursing women, we don't yet know much about kids under the age of 12, and we also know people with severe allergies can't get the vaccine. In order to protect those individuals, everybody else should really try to get the vaccine to slow the spread of the virus. Also, the fact that wearing masks has kept flu activity in Colorado at less than 0.1% so far this winter. So, there are so many good reasons for us to continue to wear masks, even after we get the vaccine."

Wachtel: "With everyone wearing masks, physically distancing, working from home, and going to school from home, businesses are suffering. At the same time, I haven't had a cold in eight months. That is really nice. If there any holdovers from coronavirus time, it's open everything up, let kids go to school, let people go to work, and eat in restaurants but if you're feeling sick, wear a mask. It's going to keep other people from getting sick, even if it's not the dangerous COVID-19."

Have you gotten used to wearing a mask over the last eight months or so?

Wachtel: Has it only been eight months? It feels like we've been wearing these things forever. Every now and then, years ago you would see somebody in the airport wearing one and they would look totally insane. Now, to see a person without a mask you think, "Oh my gosh, that's the most dangerous thing I've ever seen! That person such a risk-taker." I have definitely gotten used to it. In colder weather, it's kind of nice because it keeps your face warm. It does fog up your glasses though which is not too much fun. It’s just become this thing you always grab before you leave the house. It just feels so normal to have it on now. It also feels safe. I’m keeping myself safe but I'm also keeping the community safe. It's just part of everyday life now.

How adaptable are humans and how does that play into our experience wearing masks?

Wachtel: Humans are incredibly adaptable. Thank goodness because we've had to deal with so much change in such a short period of time. It hasn't really been that long since we've been wearing these masks but it does feel totally normal and like it's been forever. It’s like getting used to wearing glasses or getting used to anything new. It just kind of becomes part of a daily routine and then it doesn't feel abnormal anymore.

How do you expect people to adapt when there are no longer mandates requiring the use of masks?

Wachtel: I’m going to feel like I'm breaking the law when I walk into a public space without a mask on. Every now and then I will realize I forgot my mask at home and immediately turn around. I run back into the house and grab it because I’m afraid the feds are going to swoop in and get me. It's going to feel really weird and uncomfortable for me and I think probably for a lot of people when that mask mandate is gone. First of all, it's just normal. We feel normal with it now. It also feels safe. Seeing other people wearing a mask makes me feel safe. It also makes me feel good to know I'm protecting other people just in case I have COVID, I don't want to spread it to others. It's going to be a little bit tough to get used to not having the mask on anymore.

Do you expect to see people continuing to wear masks? If so, why?

Wachtel: I wouldn't be surprised at all if our behavior as Americans changes. For example, if we have a cold or if we think we might have the flu, we'd put on a mask before we leave or if we see somebody in the grocery store wearing a mask when most people aren't, and that doesn't look weird anymore. It's more like, 'oh, that person is taking care of himself and he's also taking care of me because maybe he's sick.' I think we're going to see people holding on to the masks longer than is needed. It has become so normal. It feels like having a safety blanket. The kind of cliched nightmare people have where they're at work or in school and realize they forgot to put their pants on has been replaced with the mask. Now they wake up at school or work and realize they don't have their mask on. They feel very exposed and like they're endangering the world.

Is there anything from your field you can compare our normalization of masks to?

Wachtel: In the past, if you saw somebody walking in the park or anywhere in public and they were talking to themselves, that used to be a sign of a major mental illness. It stood out because it was very unusual to see. Now, people do that all the time because they have earbuds and sometimes you can't see them. Now, it's very normal to walk by somebody and it seems like they're talking to themselves but they probably aren't. That kind of behavior has become normal and acceptable. It's just no longer shocking to see. It's almost a similar thing with wearing masks. It looks so weird at first like that person must have OCD or must be a germaphobe because they're wearing a mask. Now it seems so normal, so normal that when you see a person without a mask, it looks weird.

What explains how our society, once so averse to masks, has become so normalized to them?

Wachtel: It's remarkable how adaptable humans are. At least in Denver and Colorado, we really have come together to say, 'masks are worth it. It's such a pain in the butt but it's so worth it.' Now it doesn't really even feel like a pain anymore, it just feels normal. Because of that, people may hang on to the masks a little bit longer after mask mandates are gone and they aren't necessarily required anymore. It's just become part of who we are, part of our daily routine, and part of what helps us to feel safe. It also helps us feel like we're keeping the community safe which is really cool. It's such a simple thing we can do to help others.

Does knowing masks will still be around after the vaccine change people's incentive to get vaccinated?

Wachtel: Does it change the incentive? Yeah. I get the argument and frustration. We're doing everything we've been told and we've gotten the vaccine, why do we have to wear a mask? It makes sense. This is still a fairly new science. These vaccines look really promising but we don't exactly how they work, how long they work, or if it prevents us from transmitting the virus to other people. If we can just hold on a little bit longer until the science is clearer, then we're good. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're so close. Let's just hang on to the masks a little bit longer until we know for sure.

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