2023’s flu and cold season have started with a vengeance. The virus which has been uncommonly rare in the last three years is now back at high levels and causing a “tripledemic of COVID-19 (the flu) and the respiratory syncytial viruses (or RSV). The highest levels of influenza hospitalizations in the past 10 years were recorded this November.
We are epidemiologists and researchers. Our careers have been devot to understanding how viruses spread and how to stop them.
We and our colleagues in public health had to rapidly revive and use decades of evidence about respiratory virus transmission to respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The pandemic has shown that the face mask, one of the oldest ways to control respiratory viruses, is still one of the most efficient tools during a pandemic.
There are a variety of viruses that circulate.
This fall’s epidemic of respiratory disease is not cause by a new virus, unlike the previous waves of COVID-19 that occurred in the spring of 2020. Instead, masks and other measures are no longer necessary. The U.S. is now back to its traditional cold and flu season. Many viruses can co-circulate in a year and cause similar symptoms. This creates a wave of illness with ever-shifting combinations of more than 15 types of viruses.
This pattern is more evident in children than anywhere else. Our research has shown classrooms can house multiple viruses at once and that individuals children can become infected with more than one virus during an illness.
Although they are minor inconveniences to most people, seasonal flu and other respiratory viruses can be responsible for missing work or school. They can cause severe illness in some cases, particularly for older adults and children. Parents are exhausted after years of fighting just one virus.
There is an easy way to reduce the risk for others and ourselves. Masks, which are a low-cost and effective way to reduce the spread of many viruses, are a good option for individuals.
The most recent research
Researchers were already studying the effectiveness masks have on reducing the spread of other respiratory viruses long before the COVID-19 epidemic. Meta-analyses of viral spread in the initial SARS epidemic 2002-2003 revealed that one infection was prevented for every six people who wore a mask and three for those who wore an N95 mask.
The primary strategy to protect young at-risk infants against RSV infection in hospital settings has been mask-wearing by healthcare workers for many years. The fact that mask-wearing is often combined with other strategies such as hand washing has hampered scientific evaluations of their effectiveness. However, RSV transmission rates have been shown to be lower when masks are used in conjunction with gloves, gowns, and goggles.
Similar results were find in a large pre-COVID-19 study of mask-wearing. It was conduct with more than a thousand University of Michigan students from 2006 to 2007. The study showed that mask-wearers had a lower incidence of symptomatic respiratory illnesses. This was particularly true when masks were used in combination with hand hygiene.
Researchers have recently measured the levels of the virus in the exhaled air of people suffering from respiratory symptoms. The masks were more effective in preventing respiratory shedding from influenza, rhinovirus, and other non-SARS coronaviruses.
Three years after the outbreak, evidence surrounding masks has increased tremendously, as well as our experiences with them. Both outbreak investigations and laboratory studies have shown that masks reduce the virus levels in the air and the number of viruses entering our lungs. Recent studies show that wearing a surgical mask in a public indoor setting lowers your chances of being positive for COVID-19 while wearing an N95/KN95 type mask lowers your chances of being positive by 83%.
When school children are mask, infections drop.
Research has shown that mask-wearing can have a significant impact on the transmission of SARS/CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We found that schoolwide mask requirements were related to a decrease in COVID-19 infection during the fall of 2021 transmission of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Children of school age living in areas without mandatory masks were more likely to be infected than those who lived in districts that had them. This was despite the fact that they were more infected in the first weeks of the school year. Similar patterns were observed in other states that coincided with the removal of school mask requirements for spring 2023.
In our preliminary research, we found that the rate of non-COVID respiratory disease in families in a community where mask-wearing is common has dropped by half in 2020 and 2021, compared to previous years. Participants reported that they had stopped wearing masks and adopted other mitigation strategies in early 2022. This led to the return of the virus epidemic currently gripping the U.S. Curiously, this resurgence began with the reappearance of four seasonal coronaviruses, known as the “common cold.”
Unfortunately, vaccines for the two most common causes of respiratory illness are SARS/CoV-2 or influenza. SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and other viruses are more common than RSV. RSV vaccines have been in development for years and are expected to be available soon to stop the current outbreak.
Masks, on the other hand, can reduce the transmission of all respiratory viruses. There is no need to tailor the intervention for each virus. Masks are a low-cost and low-tech way for people to stay healthy during the holidays. This will allow more people to enjoy time with their loved ones.