Health officials and experts are renewing calls for mask use as respiratory illnesses rise and Americans prepare for the holidays.
RSV infections in children appear to be peaking nationally after overwhelming children’s hospitals for weeks, but they remain unusually high. Influenza-like illnesses also remain extremely high for this point in the year, with flu-like illnesses accounting for more than 1 in 13 doctor office visits and hospitalizations continuing to rise. Transmission of respiratory infections is high or very high in 42 states.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, signaling the possible start of a much-dreaded winter wave. According to The New York Times tracking data, cases have risen 56 percent in the past two weeks and hospitalizations, which typically lag case increases, are up 28 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 9 percent of US counties have high community levels of COVID-19, which is based on case numbers and hospital capacity. An additional 35 percent of US counties reportedly have medium community levels.
The CDC recommends that everyone age 2 and older wear a high-quality mask in public and indoor settings when community levels are high, and vulnerable people should also wear a mask when levels are medium. Additionally, the CDC still recommends that people wear face masks while using public transportation, including planes, buses, trains, and subway systems.
With infections rising, local health officials are also encouraging residents to wear their masks once more. In Washington state, for example, 12 county health officials and 25 health care executives have released recommendations for people in the state to wear masks indoors.
“Communities across our state and the US are experiencing an unprecedented increase in viral respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, and COVID-19,” the group wrote in a statement. “As health officials and healthcare leaders working to improve the health of Washington residents, we recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around others indoors to protect against the acquisition and the spread of these infections to others.
Similarly, Los Angeles County health officials have also urged wearing masks as the area’s community level of COVID-19 moves to “high.”
“Our shared goal during this pandemic has always been to reduce the burden of disease, hospitalization and death, and we all know it takes a community to do that,” Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said Friday. “When you put your mask on for these few weeks during this surge, it’s about the people of Los Angeles County. It’s about every individual, every visitor, our health care workers, essential workers, and others delivering services. Plus vaccination, it is one of the easiest things that everyone can do right now.”
Across the country, New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan issued an advisory Friday telling city residents to: “Wear a mask at all times when in an enclosed public place, including inside stores, offices, lobbies, hallways, elevators, public transportation, schools, day care centers, and other shared public spaces, and when you are in a crowded outdoor environment.
Health officials are not alone in calling for more masks; experts and doctors they are also urging face coverings. Former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams he recently tweeted a photo of himself masked at an airport, writing: “Vaccinated, wearing my mask and using lots of hand sanitizer while traveling. Covid aside, I don’t want to catch the flu or RSV (or any other circulating virus) before Christmas!”
Last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky noted that Americans also don’t need to wait for health officials to recommend or even require the use of masks to protect themselves. “You don’t have to wait for CDC action to put on a mask,” she said. She also said the agency is “actively investigating” including transmission rates for all respiratory illnesses, not just COVID-19, in its community-level categories, which determine when people should wear face coverings. If the agency were to make such a change soon, it could mean masking recommendations could take effect abruptly for the vast majority of the US.