Face masks may return amid holiday ‘tripledemic’ of covid, flu and RSV

Health experts say a quality medical mask remains a highly effective line of defense against respiratory viruses

(Chelsea Conrad/The Washington Post/iStock)

With three highly contagious respiratory viruses sickening adults and children around the country and holiday gatherings just weeks away, public health officials are beginning to talk about face masks again.

While mask mandates are unlikely in most parts of the country, health experts are renewing recommendations to wear a high-quality medical mask on public transportation, in airports and on planes, while shopping and in other crowded public spaces.

What’s notable is that the mask recommendations this time aren’t just about avoiding the coronavirus. Masks are advised to protect against what is being called the “tripledemic” — a confluence of influenza, coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that already is straining hospitals and forcing parents to miss work in record numbers.

Cases of covid-19, flu and RSV are colliding, prompting worries about a potential “tripledemic.” Here’s what you should know. (Video: The Washington Post)

As the country heads into its third pandemic winter, covid-19 cases are on the rise, and the 2022-23 flu season is shaping up to be the worst in a decade — there have already been 4,500 deaths from flu, including 14 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With such a heavy burden of illness straining the health-care system, it may be hard to believe that something as simple as a face mask could make a meaningful difference. But health experts say a quality medical mask — such as an N95, KN95, or KF94 — remains a highly effective line of defense, especially when combined with vaccination, hand washing, better ventilation and avoiding crowds.

“Masks will help reduce your risk of all respiratory viruses not just covid,” said Jay K. Varma, an internal medicine physician, epidemiologist and professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medical College. “They have to be the right quality masks worn consistently and correctly. Even a very small percentage increase in mask-wearing when multiplied by a large population can have a big impact.”

We talked to several public health experts about why a face mask may be your best holiday accessory this winter. Here’s what they had to say.

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