With daily reports of breakthrough infections and the rise of the Delta variant, vaccinated people may need to take a few more precautions. Here’s what you need to know.

By Tara Parker-Pope

As the Delta variant spreads among the unvaccinated, many fully vaccinated people are also beginning to worry. Is it time to mask up again?

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, most experts agree that masks remain a wise precaution in certain settings for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. How often you use a mask will depend on your personal health tolerance and risk, the infection and vaccination rates in your community, and whom you’re spending time with.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday updated its guidance, advising fully vaccinated people to wear masks in public indoor settings in communities with “substantial or high” transmission rates.

The bottom line is this: While being fully vaccinated protects against serious illness and hospitalization from Covid-19, no vaccine offers 100 percent protection. As long as large numbers of people remain unvaccinated and continue to spread coronavirus, vaccinated people will be exposed to the Delta variant, and a small percentage of them will develop so-called breakthrough infections. Here are answers to common questions about how you can protect yourself and others and lower your risk for a breakthrough infection.

To decide whether a mask is needed, first ask yourself these questions.

  • Are the people I’m with also vaccinated?
  • What’s the case rate and vaccination rate in my community?
  • Will I be in a poorly ventilated indoor space, or outside? Will the increased risk of exposure last for a few minutes or for hours?
  • What’s my personal risk (or the risk for those around me) for complications from Covid-19?

Experts agree that if everyone you’re with is vaccinated and symptom-free, you don’t need to wear a mask.

“I don’t wear a mask hanging out with other vaccinated people,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I don’t even think about it. I’m going to the office with a bunch of people, and they’re all vaccinated. I’m not worried about it.”

But once you start to venture into enclosed public spaces where the chances of your encountering unvaccinated people are greater, a mask is probably a good idea. Being fully vaccinated remains the strongest protection against Covid-19, but risk is cumulative. The more opportunities you give the virus to challenge the antibodies you’ve built up from your vaccine, the higher your risk of coming into contact with a large enough exposure that the virus will break through the protective barrier generated by your vaccine.

For that reason, the case rate and vaccination rate of your community are among the most important factors influencing the need for masks. The new C.D.C. recommendations suggest fully vaccinated people start wearing masks in public indoor spaces when community transmission rates reach 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. You can find out the transmission risk in your community using the C.D.C.’s Covid data tracker.

Vaccination rates should factor into your decision as well. In Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, for instance, more than 70 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. In Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, fewer than 45 percent of adults are vaccinated. In some counties, overall vaccination rates are far lower.

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