Health officials and experts are renewing calls for masking as respiratory illnesses surge and Americans prepare for holidays.
RSV infections in children appear to be cresting nationally after overwhelming children’s hospitals for weeks, but they remain unseasonably 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 visits to the doctor’s office and hospitalizations continuing to rise. Respiratory infection transmission is high or very high in 42 states.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, meanwhile, are on the rise, signaling the potential start of a much-dreaded winter wave. According to data tracking by The New York Times, cases are up 56 percent over the last two weeks and hospitalizations, which typically lag behind case rises, are up 28 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that about 9 percent of US counties have high COVID-19 Community Levels, which are based on case numbers and hospital capacity. An additional 35 percent of US counties reportedly have medium community levels.
The CDC recommends that all people over the age of 2 wear a high-quality mask in public, indoor settings when community levels are high, and vulnerable people should also mask when levels are medium. Additionally, the CDC still recommends that people mask while using public transportation, including airplanes, buses, trains, and subway systems.
With infections soaring, local health officials are also encouraging residents to break out their masks once again. In Washington state, for instance, 12 county health officers and 25 health care executives released recommendations for people in the state to wear masks indoors.
“Communities across our state and around the US are experiencing an unprecedented surge in viral respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, and COVID-19,” the group wrote in a statement. “As health officers and health care leaders working to improve the health of Washington residents, we recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around others in indoor spaces to protect against both acquiring and spreading these infections to others.”
Likewise, county health officials in Los Angeles also urged mask-wearing as the area’s COVID-19 Community Level 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 so,” Barbara Ferrer, director of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said Friday. “When you put on your mask for these few weeks during this surge, it is about the people of LA County. It is about every individual, every visitor, our health care workers, essential workers, and other people who serve. In addition to vaccination, it is one of the easiest things everyone can do right now.”
Across the country, the health commissioner for New York City, Ashwin Vasan, released an advisory Friday telling city residents to: “Wear a mask at all times when in an indoor public setting, including inside stores, offices, lobbies, hallways, elevators, public transportation, schools, child care facilities, and other public shared spaces, and when in a crowded outdoor setting.”
Health officials aren’t alone in calling for more masks; experts and physicians are also urging face coverings. Former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently tweeted a photo of himself masked at an airport, writing: “Vaccinated, wearing my mask, and using plenty of hand sanitizer while traveling. Covid aside, I don’t want to get flu or RSV (or any other viruses circulating) 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 masking to protect themselves.”One need not wait for CDC action in order to put a mask on,” she said. She also said that the agency is “actively looking into” including transmission rates of all respiratory illnesses—not just COVID-19—into its community levels categories, which determine when people should mask. If the agency made such a change soon, it could mean that masking recommendations could abruptly go into effect for the vast majority of the US.