As a swarm of respiratory viruses surge across the country and people come together for the holidays, masking — in addition to vaccination and testing — will be an important tool to help stem the spread and keep people safe, experts say.
Amid the threat of several viruses, New York City health officials issued an advisory on Dec. 10 strongly urging people to wear high-quality masks when indoors and in crowded outdoor settings, regardless of vaccination status, NBC New York reported.
Washington state health officials have also urged masking indoors, as has the Oregon Health Authority and the public health director for Los Angeles County.
In a media briefing on Dec. 5, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky recommended masking when traveling by plane, train, bus or other public transportation, for anyone immunocompromised or at increased risk of severe disease and anyone who lives in a county with high COVID-19 levels. As of Dec. 8, that’s almost 10% of the country, per CDC data.
What’s happening with COVID and other viruses right now?
After a lull in the late summer and fall, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising in many parts of the country, fueled by new omicron variants. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Dec. 7, the seven-day average of weekly new cases increased 49.6% from the previous week.
This coincides with an unusually early flu season causing a record number of hospitalizations and a severe surge of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) among kids that has overwhelmed children’s hospitals across the country, TODAY previously reported.
The so-called “tripledemic” of these respiratory viruses is causing concern among health officials, especially as the holidays approach and people are increasingly gathering indoors or traveling, while also taking fewer precautions compared to previous winters.
“Human behavior and the seasonality of these viruses contributes to this elevated transmission (during the winter),” Dr. Eric Cioè-Peña, director for global health at Northwell Health in New York, tells TODAY.com. “I think that’s why we’re seeing this mask recommendation come back,” Cioè-Peña adds.
While it’s still unclear whether indoor masking mandates will return, it is clear that COVID-19 remains a threat and isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
Masking can reduce the spread of all three ‘tripledemic’ viruses
“It’s important to celebrate the holidays, but there are a few simple common sense things that can help prevent (transmission) and not eliminate the risk, but minimize the risk,” Dr. Michael Phillips, chief hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health, tells TODAY.com. Masking is one of them.
Wearing a mask not only helps prevent transmission of COVID-19, but also influenza, RSV and the other respiratory viruses circulating right now, Phillips adds.
“There’s such good data now that there’s a broad range of infectious particles that are emitted by somebody … and a mask is pretty good at (catching) those particles coming out, even if it’s got some gaps,” says Phillips.
Tight-fitting and N95 masks are especially good at protecting the person wearing it, “so even if the person sitting next to you is unmasked, it’ll reduce your risk of getting a disease,” Cioè-Peña explains.
What kind of mask should you wear?
Any mask is better than no mask, but some masks and respirators are more protective than others, according to the CDC. Cloth masks provide the least protection, well-fitting surgical masks and K95s offer more protection, and respirators, like N95s, offer the highest level of protection.
No matter which type, the mask should fit properly — snugly over your mouth, nose and chin, with no gaps on the sides — per the CDC.
Who should wear a mask? When should you wear a mask?
Pretty much everyone can stand to benefit from wearing a mask in certain circumstances, such as in crowded indoor settings. But it’s especially important for people at risk of severe disease, Phillips says. This includes immunocompromised people, those over 65, or who have underlying medical conditions, per the CDC.
You should also wear a mask if you’re planning to spend time with immunocompromised or older people, including when you’re traveling to see them, Cioè-Peña says.
People who are sick but need to leave the house should also wear an N95 or other tight mask, he adds. Only travel if you’re sick if it’s an emergency, and avoid immunocompromised people.
You should wear a mask in crowded indoor settings, especially on public transportation, including buses, airplanes, trains and taxis. The airport itself is also a good place to wear a mask, as well as bars, restaurants, Phillips advises.
Is it too late to get your flu shot or COVID vaccine?
In addition to masking, vaccination is essential to help protect yourself and the people around you. “Vaccination reduces severe illness, hospitalization, and it also reduces transmission to others,” says Phillips. COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, free and recommended for everyone 6 months and older (and boosters, for everyone 5 years and older), per the CDC.
Ahead of the holidays, the experts encourage everyone to get up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, including the new booster, and to get their annual flu shot, especially high-risk people.
“It’s not too late to get your flu shot. It’s not too late to get your booster,” says Phillips, adding that it’s safe to get both during the same appointment.
Christmas is 11 days away, so if you get the booster now there is still time for the body to build up some protection, says Cioè-Peña, although it does take two weeks to reach the maximum effect.
Should you test for COVID before holiday gatherings?
COVID-19 testing is another important tool to keep people safe over the holidays. You should test anytime you have COVID-like symptoms, and take a rapid test before social gatherings as close as possible to the actual event, experts previously told TODAY.com.