In recent weeks, we’ve seen a judge’s ruling halt a federal mask mandate for public transportation and a since-tempered statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci that the pandemic phase of COVID is over in the U.S. Such shifts can prompt extreme reactions, particularly as over the past two years, some have come to see masks as a muzzle, while others have come to see them as central to personal security.
In a typical year, people in the U.S. experience about 500 million respiratory infections – more than one per person. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of many respiratory viruses dropped precipitously. For example, the hospital where I work diagnosed over 3,000 patients with influenza in January and February of 2020, but none in January and February of 2021.
Likewise, RSV – or respiratory syncytial virus, which can cause life-threatening illness in infants – virtually disappeared in 2020. Asthma attacks, which are often triggered by common cold viruses, also plummeted. There is broad consensus that these reductions were a side effect of measures meant to stop COVID-19 from spreading. And although respiratory viruses have begun to return in parallel with the shedding of masks and other mitigation measures, the lessons learned should be enduring.
There are certain facts of life everyone learns to accept: You can’t change the weather, for example, just as you can’t turn back time. Contracting a respiratory virus infection used to be in a similar category, too, but 2020 provided a clear demonstration that there are actions we can take to dramatically reduce getting and spreading these infections. Absorbing that lesson offers a transformative opportunity to change the status quo.
To do so, we need to carry some of the health habits we learned during the past two years into the future, including the need to stay home when sick – even with “minor” cold symptoms – and strategic mask-wearing. COVID has been an education in when it is most important to avoid getting and spreading viruses – in particular, when dangerous pathogens like the novel coronavirus or flu are circulating at high levels, and when interacting with people who are at higher risk of serious illness. The pandemic also has provided the tools to do these things: Zoom is now a household word, for instance, and everyone knows how to get and wear a mask.
To be sure, it is important to be together and to see each other’s faces. This is part of being human, and isolation has taken its own toll over the past two years. I am not suggesting perpetual masking or permanent remote interactions, but rather the strategic deployment of these tools when they can make a big impact on reducing virus-related illness.
Stopping the transmission of COVID-19 is worth it, not only to avoid its acute health risks, but also to escape the disruptions to daily life and the risk of long COVID. Stopping the flu is also worth it: In a typical winter, influenza kills tens of thousands of people and causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. And not only are common colds a major trigger of childhood asthma attacks, they also can lead to hospitalization for people with chronic lung diseases.
In other countries, mask-wearing in the winter or to prevent infection has been a social and health norm for years. The same way a popular health trend in the U.S. – jogging around the neighborhood in exercise clothes – is unusual by the norms of many other cultures. But COVID has made mask-wearing more familiar, and the pandemic is also the type of great disruptor that enables transformative change.
These illnesses do not have to be an inevitable fact of life. After the roller coaster of the past two years and the continuation and uncertainty of COVID, it’s time to create new health norms that will make the future better. Strategic masking is a practice that will allow those who embrace it to take back control over their lives – and their health.