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Do masks really provide better protection against coronavirus than a vaccine?

The director of the CDC said a face mask may guarantee to protect against COVID-19 more than a vaccine. An Idaho medical expert says its more complicated than that.

BOISE, Idaho — For months, people around the world have waited for a big announcement about when a vaccine for the coronavirus will be ready. In the United States, that news came Wednesday when the CDC said in congressional testimony that they expect a vaccine for COVID-19 to be ready for the general public by the third quarter of 2021.       

The fact that a widely available vaccine is still a year out is big news, but a different comment from testimony made just as many headlines.

“We have clear scientific evidence that they work, and they are our best defense. I may even go do far as to say that this face mask is more guarantee to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.

It’s a strong statement about masks and their effectiveness to fight the coronavirus pandemic. However, is it accurate to say they work better than a vaccine at protecting people?

“I think he gave a very complicated message in a very short period of time and stated very simply, but it is far more complex,” said Dr. David Pate, a medical expert and a member of the Idaho coronavirus task force.

Pate said when he heard the mask versus vaccine soundbite from Dr. Redfield it certainly got his attention.

“At this time we don’t know how effective the vaccines are going to be. I’m certainly hopeful, I’m optimistic, but we don’t know how effective they are going to be,” Pate said.

RELATED: Idaho medical expert explains what the CDC coronavirus vaccine timeline means

The CDC announced this week that vaccines for coronavirus should be available to the general public by the third quarter of 2021. The announcement was celebrated as a major milestone, making Redfield’s comments confusing to many. 

“A mask, depending on the study, is somewhere between 65% and 85% effective,” Pate explained. ”I think his point is, look you have a mask now everybody can use that it is pretty effective. We don’t have the vaccine yet it’s going to be awhile still before we have enough vaccine and enough people vaccinated and we don’t know what the effectiveness is going to be. We are going to know soon, another month or two we are going to know but we don’t know yet.”

Dr. Pate agrees that, of course, masks are a great tool to help battle the pandemic, but a vaccine is a huge step to moving out of a pandemic. But, even when a vaccine is available to everyone, masks will play a big role. 

“We think it’s going to take about six weeks since your first shot of the two until you really have your maximum full protection,” he explained.

So when will we be done with masks as an accessory to our daily lives?

“It’s really going to be when we drive the transmission down,” Pate said.

He added that that depends on things like the effectiveness of a vaccine and if enough people are able or willing to get a vaccine. Essentially, it needs to get to the point where the virus has nowhere to go.

While Dr. Redfield’s comment about mask protection versus a vaccine made a lot of headlines, Dr. Pate said it’s important to keep something in-mind through this pandemic.

“Sometimes the way people get in trouble is we try to make a nuanced argument in a soundbite and that just usually leads to more confusion,” Pate said.     

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