For Bill Gates, face masks and pants share a striking similarity: When Covid is running rampant, you should probably put them both on before leaving the house.
"What's the downside of wearing a mask?" Gates asked rhetorically, and with a chuckle, at the annual Munich Security Conference earlier this month. "You have to wear pants… These societies are so cruel – why do they make you wear pants? I'm trying to figure it out."
The billionaire Microsoft co-founder and health philanthropist's comments came ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidelines for indoor masking, released Friday afternoon. Under the new guidance — which identifies high-risk communities by measuring local Covid caseloads, hospitalizations and hospital capacity — more than 70% of Americans are no longer currently advised to wear face masks indoors, though they still can choose to.
Crucially, according to the new guidelines, indoor masking could become recommended again if those numbers rise in the coming months, or even years. "We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing last week.
That's exactly what Gates anticipates, too. As Covid enters its endemic stage, cases and hospitalizations will cyclically rise and fall like the flu, he said at the conference — meaning masks will likely need to become part of everyone's seasonal wardrobes.
"In the future, some mask-wearing probably will be indicated," he said. "We'll have [Covid] rebounds, but they'll be more like typical seasonal flu levels, where of course, we don't generally shut things down."
High-quality face coverings are proven to lower your odds of getting Covid in indoor settings. Earlier this month, a CDC study found that wearing an N95 or KN95 respirator indoors lowered a person's odds of testing positive for Covid by 83%. Surgical masks lowered the odds by 66%, compared with 56% for cloth masks.
Similarly, masks can help prevent you from getting the flu during flu season, according to the CDC. And at the Munich conference, Gates warned that masks could stay useful because the world may soon experience "another pandemic."
The good news, Gates said: Vaccines designed to eliminate several "families of respiratory viruses," including flu and Covid variants, could arrive in the coming years. Gates himself has funneled billions of dollars into vaccine research, and multiple teams working on pan-coronavirus vaccines have reported positive early results over the past year.
"I do think in the next decade, we can come up with an eradication vaccine," Gates said. "There's already a lot of work that's been done on a universal flu vaccine, and the data on that looks very promising."