As the COVID-19 pandemic raged in the U.S., masks became key to reducing the virus' spread. But they did more than just prevent people from getting or spreading COVID-19 — they also appear to be the reason why cases of the flu, cold and other respiratory diseases are down significantly in the last year.
And as a post-pandemic future becomes more clear with the vaccine rollout well underway, health experts are wondering if masks will stick around in the U.S. after COVID-19 is finally in the rear view.
Recent studies and data have shown that respiratory illnesses in children have sharply declined over the last year, when most kids either did virtual learning at home or were required to wear masks at school. A study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in March looked at the number of pediatric patients hospitalized for respiratory illnesses in 44 children's hospitals across the U.S., and found that it had declined by 62% this year.
Meanwhile, data from the Centers of Disease Control on this year's influenza season show a monumental difference. Typically, around 100 to 200 children die of the flu each year — during the 2019 to 2020 flu season, 195 kids died — but so far this season, there has been just one child flu death in the U.S.
"I think that that obliteration of the flu epidemic, which was seen globally, tells us that the way that influenza is transmitted from one person to another might really have been impacted by the use of masks, more than anything else," Flor Munoz, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' infectious-diseases committee, told the Washington Post in early March.
Adult flu deaths are also down significantly. Depending on the severity of the flu strain that emerges each season, total deaths range from 12,000 to 61,000 a year. So far in the 2020 to 2021 season, the CDC has reported just 219 deaths.
"I think this has clearly shown that masking, distancing, hand-washing — all these things clearly work," Aaron Milstone, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, told the Post. "So I think the question will be, how much appetite do people have for all that to prevent influenza, instead of just COVID."
Milstone, and other health experts, have expressed skepticism that Americans will be willing to continue wearing masks after the pandemic. Though they have been common in Asian countries long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's been tough to convince all Americans to wear masks, even with the deadly virus circulating.
"I'm a little skeptical that this crisis will be enough for a widespread culture change, given how difficult it's been to achieve a reasonable culture shift in the previous months," Dr. Ricardo Franco of the University of Alabama at Birmingham told NPR.
For now, with COVID-19 once again on the rise in the U.S. as the faster-spreading variants circulate, masks are essential to reducing cases, even if people have been vaccinated. On Monday, President Joe Biden urged states to keep or reinstate their mask mandates after Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and Arkansas all announced in the last few weeks that they would drop theirs.
"Please, this is not politics — reinstate the mandate," Biden said. "The failure to take this virus seriously is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place."
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