If a new study shows that vaccinations prevent COVID-19 transmission, inoculated Americans could be "much more liberal" in deciding whether or not to wear a face mask, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert.
But he also said that he cannot start recommending the removal of face masks until daily COVID infections reduce drastically.
"Removing the mask is really going to depend on what the level of infection in the community is," Fauci said Saturday during an interview with "Good Morning America." "If vaccine rollout goes well and a lot less people on a daily basis get infected, then the likelihood of being able to pull back on mask-wearing [increases] ... Right now the one thing I do know is that we have between 50,000 and 60,000 new infections a day. When you're at that level, you still gotta wear a mask."
The vaccination study, launched by the National Institutes of Health, enrolled 12,000 college students across the U.S. to understand how effectively the Moderna vaccine stops coronavirus transmission.
Experts say the vaccines work well to prevent symptomatic disease, but they are still learning whether or not a vaccinated person can infect others with the "silent spread" of COVID-19.
"[That's] the reason why we ask people even when they're vaccinated to wear a mask, the possibility that they may be infected and not know it and transmit it to others ... If we find out they don't, that will make it much more liberal in doing things when you're vaccinated without worrying about infecting other people," Fauci said.
Fauci said the NIH could release the results of this study in five months.
He also encouraged Americans to "hold on for just a little longer" because if people put masks aside now, the country is likely to see a surge.
"We don't want that to happen, it would really be taking a step backwards," he said.
Overall, more than 133 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. In total, 26% of the population (87.3 million people) has received at least one dose, and 14% of the population (47.1 million people) are fully vaccinated.