You’re Sick, Too?
With masks coming off, it seems like seasonal illnesses like the flu, the common cold and stomach bugs are running rampant. Is that really the case, or are we all just paying more attention to sickness than we did before COVID-19?
We asked Jessie Leyse, MD, MPH, an infectious disease physician and pediatrician at UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center to weigh in.
What’s the prevalence of seasonal viruses in our region right now?
Compared with last year, we’re seeing more cases of influenza and other influenza-like illnesses, but still far less than what we’d typically see in a “normal” year.
In pre-pandemic years, we’d usually see a peak in respiratory illnesses in December, January, February and into March. Depending on the year, we’d sometimes see a “tail” of cases going into April as well. But this year, we had a tiny increase over the winter months and then a fairly constant rate for the past few weeks.
Perhaps we have collectively gotten used to being healthy over the winter months and so a return to normal colds and respiratory illnesses seems more intrusive than it did before.
Why are we seeing more illnesses this year?
There seems to be a correlation between the removal of masks and other mitigation measures and the increase in respiratory illnesses. Last year, we had almost zero cases of influenza. This year, we’ve had more flu cases, as well as some of the other respiratory viruses. It does appear to coincide with the relaxation of some of the COVID-19 mandates.
What about stomach bugs? It seems they are going around school systems with a vengeance.
Yes, we are also seeing more cases of gastroenteritis. These viruses are mostly transmitted when a person touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their mouth, thereby becoming infected. Without masks on, people are more likely to touch their nose and mouth. So while these viruses aren’t airborne, the masks still helped to prevent transmission by altering our behavior. The best way to avoid getting sick with these viruses is to wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your nose and mouth.
Has the fact that we haven’t been exposed to these illnesses in the past two years weakened our immunity?
No, every day we are still exposed to lots of bacteria, viruses and fungi that keep our immune systems active. Vaccines, too, boost our immune system against viruses like influenza.
Most of my personal cold and flu medications are now expired because we haven’t used them the past two years. Even this winter we’ve needed less medication than in a normal year.
Do you think masking will become a common part of flu season in the future?
Based on the data from the past two years, it’s clear that masks are extremely effective at preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses. Because of that, I would anticipate that masking will become part of our normal routine during “respiratory season” going forward. If you think about it, in a normal year, influenza kills an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. every year. If we can reduce this, even by half, with masking, it seems a small price to pay to save lives.
What about COVID-19? Is it likely to become a recurring illness during flu season? Will it now be referred to as “cold and flu and COVID season?”
It does seem likely that COVID-19 is here to stay. Most likely, the waves will start to look a lot like influenza, with peaks during the winter months when we’re all indoors and fewer cases during the warmer months when we’re outside.
What else can people do to protect themselves from contracting or spreading these illnesses?
Staying home when sick is important. And of course, get your flu shot every year. But going back to the basics of washing your hands is probably the single most important thing people can do to help prevent the spread of any infectious disease.