With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly behind us, many have thrown off their masks.
But not so fast, said Steven Lawrence, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Masks do more than slow the spread of COVID. They can also stop dangerous and sometimes deadly viruses such as influenza and RSV, which are currently rampant throughout the St. Louis area.
“Let’s not unlearn the lessons we’ve learned from COVID,” Lawrence said. “During respiratory virus season, it is important to be more careful and at least consider taking extra precautions like masking in certain situations to protect yourself and others. Many of us are done with masks, but why would we want to throw away one of the best tools in our toolbox? »
Here, Laurent; Cheri LeBlanc, MD, executive director of the Habif Health & Wellness Center on the Danforth campus and assistant professor of medicine; and Stephen Y. Liang, MD, associate professor of medicine in the School of Medicine, discuss how students, faculty, and staff can stay healthy this holiday season.
With the holidays coming up, how do you protect yourself?
Lawrence: Be up to date with your COVID and flu vaccines. We don’t have an RSV vaccine yet, but it could happen in the next few years. Also, stay home when you are sick. And when you’re indoors for an extended period of time with people who don’t live with you, it’s entirely appropriate to consider masking.
Also, testing is still a tool for COVID. If you will be around people at high risk for severe COVID for any length of time, test 24-48 hours before arrival and then immediately before departure. If these two tests are both negative, you should be good to go as long as you don’t have symptoms. If you have symptoms, especially fever, you don’t want to be around high-risk people.
But the new normal should be, whether it’s for social situations or work, if you have symptoms, you should get tested, and if you test positive for COVID or the flu, stay home. If negative, always hide indoors when around other people until symptoms subside. We should have this burned into our brains – none of us should ever be unmasked with respiratory symptoms again.
Does masking prevent the flu?
Lawrence: We have growing evidence that masking reduces your risk of contracting COVID and it may be even more effective in preventing the flu. Consider this – the flu was almost non-existent in the winter of 2020-21 when most people were in masks and there were fewer indoor events. Each year, 10,000 to 50,000 people die from the flu. Just by wearing masks, we can save thousands and thousands of lives. The flu vaccine is also important. Like the COVID vaccine, the flu vaccine provides protection against serious illnesses. But masking adds another layer to prevent you from getting an infection in the first place.
The flu came early. Is it too late to get the flu shot?
Liang: Absolute numbers are moderately high right now and growing rapidly. We have no idea where the peak will be, but we expect it to continue over the next two months until around early spring. So no, it’s not too late to get vaccinated. And the CDC reports that the vaccine appears to be a good match against the current strains.
What should students do if they have a fever or show symptoms?
The White : We have a rapid test that tests for these three viruses – COVID, influenza and RSV. We can get these results in one hour in Habif. For COVID, there is a state isolation order in the event of a positive result. We give our students a letter that they can share with their teachers. We have always given students the same letter to share with their teachers in case of the flu. And while there is no state isolation order, we recommend that our students diagnosed with the flu stay home until they are fever-free for 24 hours.
Doctors at St. Louis Children’s Hospital report that RSV is overwhelming local hospitals. Can adults also suffer from RSV?
Lawrence: Absolutely. Although we know that children under the age of 2 are the most affected age group, adults can also get sick. Most adults usually suffer from a mild cold with a cough and possibly asthma-like symptoms. But adults over 65 with underlying conditions like COPD can get sick enough to die from RSV.
Although our students have access to RSV testing, it is less readily available to the public. And, unlike the flu and COVID, there’s no real cure for it. But if you are sick, you should not be around other people.
Do you mask every day?
Lawrence: Here is my own risk calculation. If I’m going to be near people in an indoor space for an extended period of time, I mask myself. So for a quick trip to the grocery store, I don’t always mask because unless I stay with the same person for a long time in the queue, the risk is low. I did, however, wear a mask to my daughter’s recital because I was seated next to the same people for an hour. Everyone must decide when the advantages for themselves and their loved ones outweigh the disadvantages of masking.
Everything you say makes sense. But people are finished. Many of us had COVID, got over it, and now we want to move on.
Lawrence: Consider seat belts. When I was a kid, we didn’t wear seat belts and we were fine. But the fact is, the people around us are the ones who didn’t die from car accidents. There are many people who have not succeeded. So it’s like, ‘I’ve had COVID. I didn’t get that sick. Most people don’t. But do you know what, there are over a million Americans who aren’t here to share that experience with us right now, let alone those who have long-term complications.
What is your final message to the University of Washington community?
The White : We really need to get rid of that “I’m sick, but it doesn’t matter” mindset. I have to go to class. I have to go to work. Not only does this kind of thinking not help us, but it can hurt everyone around us. “Power through” has been the mantra for our high-achieving students as well as our high-achieving faculty and staff. But it’s time to change the belief that your health doesn’t matter. Your health matters, and the health of those around you matters.
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