The Centers for Disease Prevention on Monday urged people to wear masks to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses this season as Covid, flu and RSV circulate at the same time.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in a call with reporters, said wearing a mask is one of several everyday precautions people can take to reduce their chances of catching or spreading a respiratory virus during the busy holiday season.
“We also encourage you to wear a quality, well-fitting mask to help prevent the spread of respiratory disease,” Walensky said, adding that people living in areas of high Covid transmission should give special thought to masking.
The CDC director said the agency is considering expanding its system of Covid community levels to include other respiratory viruses, such as the flu. The system is the basis for when CDC advises the public to wear masks. But Walensky encouraged people to be proactive.
“You don’t have to wait for CDC action to put on a mask,” Walensky said. “We would encourage all of these preventive measures – washing hands, staying home if you’re sick, masking, increased ventilation – during the respiratory virus season, but especially in areas with high levels of Covid-19 community.”
About 5% of the US population lives in counties where the CDC officially recommends masks due to high levels of Covid. The CDC still recommends masking for anyone traveling by plane, train, bus or other public transportation, Walensky said.
People with weakened immune systems and people who are otherwise at increased risk of serious illness should also consider wearing a mask, the CDC director said.
Walensky strongly encouraged everyone who is eligible to receive their flu shot and Covid booster. Flu shot coverage is lagging in at-risk groups — children under 5, pregnant women and at-risk seniors — compared to last year, the CDC director said. There is no vaccine against RSV.
“I would like to emphasize that the flu vaccine can be life-saving and, most importantly, there is still time to get vaccinated against the flu and its potentially serious consequences this season,” Walensky said.
The flu arrived early and hit the US hard, with hospitalizations a decade high for this time of year. More than 8.7 million people have fallen ill, 78,000 have been hospitalized and 4,500 have died from the flu this season, according to CDC data. Fourteen children have died from the flu so far this season.
More than 19,000 people were hospitalized with the flu in the week ended Nov. 26, almost double the number for the previous week, according to CDC data.
The number of people hospitalized with Covid also increased by 27% in the week ended December 2, according to CDC data. And respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has hospitalized children more frequently than in previous years. Walensky said RSV appears to have peaked in the southeast and may be flattening out in the mid-Atlantic, although spread of the virus remains high across much of the country.
“We are now facing another wave of disease. Another moment of strained capacity and truly a tragic and often preventable death,” Walensky said as she thanked health care workers for their service during the repeated waves of illness they have faced since the Covid pandemic began.
dr Sandra Fryhofer, chief executive officer of the American Medical Association, said the simultaneous spread of Covid, flu and RSV was “a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season.” Fryhofer said she understands many people are fed up with repeated Covid vaccinations but getting vaccinated is the best way to avoid getting sick over the holidays.
“You could get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations if you don’t get vaccinated,” Fryhofer said during Monday’s call.
The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics last month called on the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency in response to the surge in pediatric hospitalizations from RSV and the flu.