Fauci: We'll likely be wearing masks for most of 2021, even after a vaccine rolls out

Fauci: We'll likely be wearing masks for most of 2021, even after a vaccine rolls out
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci watches as Vice President Mike Pence speaks after leading a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Health and Human Services on June 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci says a vaccine alone is not going to "get us to the point where we want to be, by the end of 2021."
  • We'll need to vaccinate, social distance, continue hand hygiene, and use masks in order to get the level of coronavirus circulating between people down so low that outbreaks become a thing of the past.
  • The first coronavirus vaccines will likely not protect people from getting sick at 100%, but may provide somewhere around 70% protection against symptomatic infections.

Just getting vaccinated is not going to be enough to end this pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci made it clear during our interview earlier this week: There is no singular, winning public health intervention that will wipe out this novel coronavirus all on its own.

"I said a combination of an effective vaccine and adherence to certain public-health principles will get us to the point where we want to be, by the end of 2021," Fauci said during a lunchtime call over pizza on Wednesday. "I never said just the vaccine. You never should abandon the public-health measures."

It is going to be a long road to get everybody vaccinated

Fauci: We'll likely be wearing masks for most of 2021, even after a vaccine rolls out
Dr. Anthony Fauci at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on June 30, 2020 in Washington, DC.Al Drago/Getty Images

Part of the reason for Fauci's caution is because the very first coronavirus vaccines that roll out will probably not be perfectly protective against infections.

We don't know yet how effective the first coronavirus vaccines are going to be, but already, more than 30 coronavirus vaccine candidates are being tested out in people around the world. Data on exactly how safe and useful some of the most promising shots — being tried out now in thousands of vaccine study volunteers in US and abroad — should start trickling out in either October, November, or December of this year.


That would, in an ideal scenario, make it possible to have a vaccine (or, a few different vaccines) approved for use across the US by 2021.

"I feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a safe and effective vaccine by the end of this calendar year," Fauci said. "I said November-December, others say October. I think it's unlikely in October, but maybe, you never know."

Still, in a best-case scenario, we'll likely be well into 2021 before every American who wants a coronavirus vaccine can get it.

We will need to be masking and distancing throughout 2021, even if a vaccine exists

In all likelihood, the initial coronavirus vaccines on the market may provide something along the lines of 70% efficacy against symptomatic infections. At that potency, they will help reduce disease levels in the population at large, but they won't prevent every instance of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

"You still need to wear that mask," Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, recently told Business Insider. "What worries me is people are going to see this vaccine as a magic dust that's going to go over our country and make this virus stop. It doesn't work that way."


Maria Elena Bottazzi, a vaccine developer at Baylor College of Medicine, agreed.

"The moment you get a vaccine doesn't mean you're going to put your mask in the trash," Bottazzi recently told Business Insider. "That is not going to happen."

Vaccines have the potential to provide just the right kind of bubble protection to make coronavirus outbreaks a thing of the past, but that is so much more likely if we adhere to other public health measures as they are rolled out.

Together with widespread masking when indoors in public spaces, keeping vigilant about hand hygiene, and respecting social distancing protocols, vaccines could make quite a dent in disease transmission.

"I don't think we're going to eradicate it," Fauci said of the coronavirus. "We may not completely eliminate it, but if you get it down to such a very low level, and enough of the population is protected — either by a vaccine or by previously having been infected — then you'll develop a degree of herd immunity that you won't have an outbreak."


Save your big get-togethers for 2022

Fauci is not saying that you'll have to wear a mask forever.

Fauci: We'll likely be wearing masks for most of 2021, even after a vaccine rolls out
Pharmacist Michael Witte, left, gives Rebecca Sirull, right, a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

If most people get vaccinated, and wear masks, and continue social distancing well into 2021, he says it's "quite reasonable" to assume we may be able to go back to having big, carefree gatherings, almost like in the pre-pandemic days.

Scheduling big parties and weddings for 2022 is a "pretty safe bet," he said.

"If there's almost no infection in the community, together with the vaccine, you might want to be able to say "I can safely congregate with people," he said. "You may want to do it with a mask, or without a mask."

Coronavirus vaccines will likely continue to improve in years to come, resulting in different generations of COVID shots which may provide increasingly better protection over time. But at first, caution will be important.


"By the time we get to the end of 2021, if everyone gets vaccinated and we continue to implement the public-health measures that I have been talking about incessantly over the last several months — they're not universally adhered to — if we do that, plus the vaccine, we'll get to the point where the level of virus will be so low, and maybe even, you know, close to absent," Fauci said.

Andrew Dunn contributed reporting to this story.