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Should we be wearing masks outside again?


It's well established that if you're outdoors, your chances of being infected with the coronavirus are far less than if you're inside because outdoors there is air, and it flows freely. Is what's now conventional wisdom due for any revision by omicron, the highly transmissible variant of the virus? For that, we turn to NPR health editor Marc Silver. Marc, thanks so much for being with us.

MARC SILVER, BYLINE: You're very welcome, Scott.

SIMON: We know there's some differences about omicron compared to other versions of the virus. Do we think this whole matter of being outdoors might be one of those differences?

SILVER: That's what we want to know. Omicron is the new kid on the block, and there's a lot we don't know about it. So I interviewed Dr. Preeti Malani. She's an infectious disease physician and the chief medical officer at the University of Michigan. And I wanted to know, does outdoor air have the same impact on omicron?

PREETI MALANI: It's hard to know for sure. One thing that's very clear is that omicron is more infectious. But outside, there's so much airflow that whether it's omicron or delta or some other variety of SARS-CoV-2, the risk of infection is a lot lower than any indoor space.

SILVER: So one of the things she pointed to was a study on college football players that - it wasn't about omicron, but it does really illustrate how much safer you are outdoors. Researchers followed over a thousand college football players. They tested them three times over a week after each game, and they found zero cases of COVID.

SIMON: I mean, but we hear every week about football players who are infected.

SILVER: Yeah, we do. There have been a lot of games postponed - this season, in fact. And the consensus is these are cases that were transmitted in the locker room and training sessions and other indoor spaces.

SIMON: And yet we've heard so much about omicron being so strong and virulent when it comes to transmissibility.

SILVER: That's absolutely right. And the good news from others that we interviewed is that that's not so much the case outdoors. And there's also some small studies that are encouraging. They show that if you do have omicron, you're not breathing out more virus than you would have breathed out if you had an earlier version of SARS-CoV-2.

SIMON: What about wearing a mask outside as you walk around the street, go from place to place?

SILVER: You know, it's totally up to you. You don't need it. If you're going outdoors for some fun in the winter and you like seeing people's faces and smiles, which we all miss seeing, go for it. Go sledding, build a snow-person, take your kids on an ice-skating outing, and it's fine not to mask up. On the other hand, it's your absolute right and, you know, to make a decision that you do want to mask up. If you've got special health concerns, if you're in a situation like a crowded rock concert that's outdoors or a sporting event, you can totally mask up. And that's fine, and it's protective.

There might be a circumstance that just makes you a little nervous. A colleague of mine went to a farmer's market last Sunday and said a guy she didn't know came up and just started talking at her right in her face. And that's where you're at the most risk. So she chose to mask up, and that's absolutely fine.

SIMON: And there are other things to worry about, too.

SILVER: That's right. Sometimes people are so laser-focused on the pandemic, we forget there are other things going on. Like many of us, Dr. Malani got a pet during the pandemic. And when she takes her pandemic puppy out for walks, she's not thinking about omicron.

MALANI: When I walk my dog and it's slippery outside, I really worry that I might fall on the ice, for example. I'm not thinking about COVID.

SILVER: And look; when it's cold outside - it's 19 degrees right now in D.C., where I live. I'm going out to a hardware store to run an errand, and I'm putting my mask on before I leave the house because, A, I don't want to take my gloves off and fiddle with it outside, and, B, it keeps my cheeks warm.

SIMON: Well, stay warm, Marc. NPR health editor Marc Silver, thanks so much.

SILVER: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.