By William Goedel, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health; Abigail Cartus, a postdoctoral research associate in epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health; and Abdullah Shihipar, a research associate at the People, Place, and Health Collective.
Hospitals were overrun by an increase in COVID-19 cases as the holiday season last year got underway. The flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID are all causing hospitals to be overburdened this year. A concerning indication that the current flu season will be the worst in years is the record number of flu cases that are filling pediatric hospitals almost to capacity, in addition to RSV. Pediatric hospitals have requested that President Joe Biden declare an emergency in order to allocate more resources to handle the current surge in patients. The hospitals are facing a particularly severe crisis.
This “tripledemic” of the flu, COVID, and RSV serves as a warning that seasonal respiratory viruses continue to pose a concern even after the pandemic has ended. Fortunately, we have a toolkit for dealing with them that is identical to what works to inhibit COVID alone, starting with masking, the most fundamental and adaptable level of protection. Mask laws should be reinstituted in areas and times where respiratory viruses are on the rise.
In a society that has reverted to pre-Importantly, masks don’t need to function flawlessly in order to make an impact.
A recent study indicated that compared to Boston school districts with mandates, those without mandates had an average of 45 more COVID cases per 1,000 students and staff. Some researchers contend that widespread mask use during the first two years of the pandemic was a factor in the historically low rates of RSV and flu that were observed in those years, indicating that masks are also effective against influenza. pandemic norms, it is challenging for individuals to obtain appropriate, high-quality knowledge about risk and put it to use.
RSV is a respiratory illness that spreads through the air like COVID but also through contact with surfaces. It causes symptoms similar to a cold and can be particularly severe in young children and the elderly. This indicates that RSV, for which a vaccine is still being developed, can be prevented by donning a mask and washing your hands frequently.
RSV can result in up to 80,000 hospitalizations and 300 fatalities in children under the age of five and up to 10,000 fatalities and 120,000 hospitalizations in adults 65 and older in an average year. Individually harmful outcomes are uncommon compared to the number of cases, as with the flu and the current COVID outbreak, but if the disease spreads and infections increase, more people will suffer serious consequences. Despite the pandemic’s waning effects, COVID continues to claim an average of 300 lives every day. Recent data show that those who are not immunized have a six-fold increased risk of dying, but immunizations are also a common cause of death today.
The population’s voluntary compliance with healthy habits like wearing masks and receiving booster injections is sadly fading as mask mandates and public health messaging have vanished and complacency or resignation take root, while corporations continue to scale back sick leave and remote work policies.
Hospitals continue to be overburdened as a result of ongoing stress from recent years and staffing problems. Although pediatric hospitals are most impacted, the entire system is having trouble, and wait times at emergency rooms have climbed. Even though masking might not be able to stop every infection, doing so reduces the burden.
Mask requirements have advantageous psychological effects in addition to preventing the spread of diseases. In a society that has reverted to pre-pandemic norms, it is challenging for individuals to obtain appropriate, high-quality knowledge about risk and put it to use. Promoting mask use through official messaging relieves people of the responsibility of determining “what is safe” and is ideal, supported by the free distribution of high-quality masks like N-95s.
Governments may not enforce broad mandates, but organizations and events may nevertheless do so. The Transportation Security Administration was recently found to have the right to require masks by the Supreme Court. A mandate avoids the discomfort of having to beg people to mask or of having to disclose a high-risk condition. Studies demonstrate that two people masking is more effective than one person masking alone.
As a result of our experience with COVID, we believe that disease mitigation should be a continuous practice that can be stepped up as needed rather than a switch that can be turned entirely on or off. As these respiratory infections tend to spread more quickly in colder weather due to changes in humidity and individuals spending more time indoors, we should constantly promote mask use during the fall and winter seasons as well as in crowded areas like mass transit and grocery shops.
Along with policies that permit it, behaviors like hand washing (which is particularly important for RSV) and staying home while ill should also be encouraged. The federal government ought to follow suit, as paid sick leave is currently required in some form in seventeen states and numerous localities. Even in “quiet” years, these policies have the power to encourage a change in our attitudes toward illness and public health.
Knowing that viruses will still pose a threat reduces the notion that “Covid is gone,” and it increases pressure on Congress to provide long-term funding for mitigation measures. The COVID response is currently in jeopardy because Congress cannot agree on a budget plan. As a result, Covid immunizations might not be free the following year, and a lack of further money might hamper the U.S.’s efforts to produce the next iteration of intranasal Covid vaccines.
Even though effective ventilation can stop the spread of airborne infections, partisan gridlock and congressional inaction also result in meager attempts to legislate clean air standards. Although the White House supports these initiatives, without strict building codes and funding for renovations, the choice to make such changes is still up to the individual building owners.
We are all exhausted from the epidemic and its effects on our daily lives, from taking preventative measures, and to being sick. Our health systems are once again under pressure, so we cannot relax. And even once this obstacle is overcome, we still have to handle upcoming surges. We have learned from the pandemic that the rates of community transmission of respiratory illnesses can rise suddenly and without warning. Fortunately, it has also shown us what to do to lessen their risks.