Tripledemic means masking up again, says virus expert

Most Americans aren’t wearing face masks anymore — and their timing isn’t great, says a leading infectious disease expert.

Just 26% of Americans reported in October that they’re wearing masks outside of their homes. That’s a decrease of about 20% to 50% from 2020 and 2021, according to data collected by the Covid States Project.

At the same time, Covid-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are all spreading at alarming rates, overwhelming hospitals nationwide. Covid alone currently accounts for 386 deaths per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu and RSV likely add to that figure, though the agency doesn’t report the number of deaths per day for those viruses.

“We have always been fearing that these viruses were going to come back, but then as they came, they came back too fast and too furious,” Dr. Diego Hijano, an infectious disease specialist with a focus on pediatric infections at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, tells CNBC Make It.

Even though fewer people are masking these days, masks still work — protecting you against infection and transmission, especially indoors and in packed outdoor settings.

“Everyone needs to know that masking really does protect individuals against all three viruses,” Hijano says.

You’ll need to decide when, where and if you’ll mask up this winter. Here are Hijano’s recommendations.

When and where you should mask up this winter

Realistically, mask mandates likely won’t be re-implemented across most of the country. And even if they were, a large swath of Americans wouldn’t follow them, Hijano says.

“People are really resistant to go back,” he says, adding: “Even if the numbers indicate that it would be beneficial for us, as a community, to all wear masks … I think that it’s going to be very hard, even if recommended, for people to follow.”

With that in mind, Hijano recommends at least masking smarter, if not harder:

  • Mask up if you’re experiencing symptoms — from a sore throat or cough to a runny nose — even if you’ve tested negative for Covid-19 and the flu. If you can stay home until your symptoms subside, Hijano recommends doing so.
  • Consider masking in crowded indoor settings, like movie theaters or concerts.
  • If you’re unvaccinated against Covid-19, pregnant or immunocompromised — or spending time with someone who is — mask up in any public indoor space.

The best protection against Covid-19 and the flu is still vaccination, Hijano says. If you aren’t up-to-date on your vaccinations, he recommends getting your shots as soon as you can.

“It’s never too late to get your vaccine,” Hijano says. “We still have a lot of winter [ahead], and that vaccine can protect you and your kids — and everyone who gets it — from having to go to the emergency department [and] from having to suffer complications.”

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