The CDC is considering incorporating other respiratory illnesses into its calculations that assess when and where people should wear masks

How to Help Prevent Flu and RSV? You Might Not like the Answer

As respiratory viruses surge across the country, a number of public-health officials and doctors are encouraging masking to protect against flu and RSV, in addition to Covid-19.

Whether masks are enough—and whether people are willing to wear them after the country has largely moved on from pandemic precautions—is another matter.

“I’m not optimistic” that people are willing to mask again, says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “There’s such a reluctance to go what is considered backward, even though it’s actually forwards in terms of helping one another.”

Masks help provide protection against flu and RSV, medical experts say, as do other precautions. RSV, a common respiratory virus, also often spreads through expelled virus particles on surfaces, so frequent hand-washing and cleaning of contaminated surfaces can help fight its spread, says Scott Roberts, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Medicine.

Most Americans never considered wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of illnesses until Covid emerged. Since 2020, the face protections and guidance around them often grew contentious, with disputes erupting over schools, at workplaces and within families. On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraged Americans to wear high-quality, well-fitting masks to help prevent the spread of many respiratory viruses.

The CDC is considering incorporating other respiratory illnesses into its calculations that assess when and where people should wear masks, Dr. Walensky said Monday, adding: “One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on.”

About a third of Americans say they aren’t likely to wear a mask outside of their homes if Covid-19 cases increase in their area, according to a poll conducted in early December by Axios and Ipsos.

Public health officials in Los Angeles County, where Covid-19 cases have been rising since late October, appear to be poised to reinstate a mask mandate for indoor public settings when the county’s CDC community level moves from medium to high and two thresholds for hospitalization are met. Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer said on Dec. 1 that masking could be reinstated by later this month. In response to news stories about the potential reinstatement, many social-media users expressed a reluctance to comply.

For the week that ended Nov. 26, the CDC classified most of the U.S. as having high or very high levels of influenza-like illness, which can include cases of Covid-19 and RSV, also known as respiratory syncytial virus.

Well-fitting masks are especially good at reducing transmission by respiratory droplets emitted when people cough, sneeze or talk, which is one way that flu, RSV and Covid spread. Public transportation, including flights, and indoor gatherings with people whose exposure status you don’t know—especially in spaces that are crowded or poorly ventilated—are good places to be vigilant, public health experts say.

RSV is often spread by touching an infected surface, which is less common with flu and Covid. Frequent hand-washing is important to guard against RSV, although it’s a sensible precaution against other illnesses too, doctors say.

Getting vaccinated against Covid-19 and flu will provide a layer of protection against those viruses. This year’s flu vaccine formulation appears to be a “very good match” to circulating strains, according to the CDC.

There is no RSV vaccine. Carrying hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes with you to the office and social gatherings is a good idea, says Dr. Roberts.

As holiday gatherings approach, those planning to spend time with elderly or immunocompromised people should consider wearing a mask regularly for a week before getting together, says Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist who writes the public health newsletter “Your Local Epidemiologist.” RSV and flu can also be dangerous in very young children.

Getting tested is an important precaution, too. Dr. Topol said he plans to take a rapid Covid-19 test before a meeting next week, and has asked other participants to do the same.

Watch for symptoms of infection and stay home if you’re sick or potentially contagious, health professionals urge.

“No one wants to hear this because so many fun holiday events are coming,” says Dr. Jetelina, “But if you’re sick, you need to stay home.”

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