For the past few years, COVID-19 has been a major concern heading into winter. But now, there's a so-called tripledemic of illnesses circulating — and cases are piling up.
Currently in the U.S., cases of the flu are starting to soar, with 9% of tests for viruses coming back positive for influenza, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also notes that 4.3% of visits to healthcare professionals right now are for a respiratory illness which is "above baseline."
At the same time, COVID-19 cases are ticking up again, per CDC data. That's not all, though. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are skyrocketing. A jaw-dropping 18.2% of tests for RSV have recently come back positive, according to the CDC, with a graph that tracks nationwide cases showing a near-vertical climb in the past few weeks.
Reports are trickling in of schools closing due to outbreaks of the flu, RSV and COVID, signaling that respiratory viruses are poised to bring some chaos this season. With all of that, it's understandable to have questions about whether you should put your child in a mask again to protect them against respiratory illness.
Dr. Betty Choi, a pediatrician, children’s book author and mother of two children in central California, tells Yahoo Life that she's having her 6- and 9-year-old kids mask up again after previously allowing them to go mask-free during small gatherings.
"Mask-wearing is a normal and simple public health strategy in many countries, well before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been inspired to adopt this practice as a family," Choi explains. Choi says that her family uses masks to "minimize the spread of contagious infections" and notes that it's also in an attempt to maintain consistent childcare.
"We don’t have back-up childcare, and missed school days negatively affects parents’ work and other responsibilities," Choi says.
Entrepreneur Lionel Mora tells Yahoo Life that he's decided to have his 5-year-old daughter wear a mask again. "Now that everyone is gathering again as normal, we are seeing so much sickness spread," he says. "Everyone’s immune systems seem to be a bit extra-sensitive from being indoors and isolated for so long."
Mora says that having his daughter wear a mask is a way to "ease" her back into crowded environments like school "where children are spreading germs again, so as to protect her from all illnesses and allow her to participate safely."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that it's "a quite reasonable idea" for parents to have their children mask up again. "We have learned through COVID that masks do indeed provide an additional layer of protection," he says. "We have been anticipating that people of all ages that are interested in protecting themselves will do this."
Dr. Mark Hicar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that this is "perfectly reasonable," especially if you have family members who are immunocompromised or if your child has struggled with the flu or RSV in the past.
He adds a caveat, though: "These infections are hard to avoid when spreading throughout the community and perfect mask use by a child can be a tough ask." Hicar also points out that, while the CDC has guidance on masking to prevent the spread of the flu, there is no official recommendation for people who aren't infected to mask up when community spread of flu is high.
Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., tells Yahoo Life that masking to avoid RSV can be tricky, too. "As RSV picks on toddlers and infants the most, it may be challenging to suggest that masks will make a substantial impact as masks may not be properly worn and are not recommended for those under 2 years old," he says.
To protect yourself and your family members, Schaffner recommends vaccinating everyone against the flu and COVID-19. (Unfortunately, there's no vaccine for RSV just yet — but it's in the works.) "Then, consider wearing a mask when you're in congregate circumstances," he adds.
Hand hygiene is also important for preventing the spread of RSV, Hicar says. "Most of the data shows RSV is spread by contact with secretions, so hand hygiene may be the more effective of these interventions," he says.
If you know you won't mask all the time but might under some circumstances, Woods suggests keeping tabs on the levels of respiratory viruses in your area and masking up accordingly. "I am personally in favor of seasonal masking when disease burden is high, given the outcome can be respiratory failure and a local ICU not having space to care for a child," he says.
Schaffner says he doesn't expect most people to adopt masking again, but says that he anticipates some will. "There is a segment of the population that has picked up prevention measures and are now more health-conscious," he says. "They'll wear masks when influenza, COVID and RSV are high in their communities. It makes sense."
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