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The Future of Masking

Israeli students and teachers wear protective face masks as they retun to school, at Hashalom School in Mevaseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. The education system fully reopen Sunday to all year levels since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** למידה מרחוק חינוך חופש תלמידים לומדים מושב בית ספר השלום מבשרת ציון מסכות חזרה ללימודים

With the pandemic very slowly winding down, at least in the U.S., one question we should be asking is whether we will want to wear masks in certain situations after this is all over.

A study released this month in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, led by researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, found that across 44 children’s hospitals, the number of pediatric patients hospitalized for respiratory illnesses is down 62%. Deaths have dropped dramatically too, compared with the last 10 years: The number of flu deaths among children is usually between 100 and 200 per year, but so far only one child has died from the disease in the U.S. during the 2020-2021 flu season.

Adults aren’t getting sick either. U.S. flu deaths this season will be measured in the hundreds instead of thousands. During the 2018-2019 flu season, which experienced a moderate level of flu activity, an estimated 34,200 Americans died.

It’s not just masks and physical distance that are tamping down communicable disease, says Dr. Amy Vehec, a pediatrician at Mercy Community Healthcare, a federally qualified health center in Tennessee. It has become a serious societal faux pas to go anywhere with a fever — so parents don’t send their ailing kids to school, she says.

“They are doing a better job of staying home when they’re sick,” Vehec says. That includes adults who may feel ill.

At the very least, I will be wearing masks on public transportation probably forever. There’s just no reason not to. How many colds did I get over the years after flying? Has to be at least 10. Another thing is masking while not feeling well or just staying home entirely. How many times did we decide to work through a cold by doing what we would normally do? Certainly I did. Looking back on this, it was….a really bad idea both for me and for other people. But I don’t think any of us really took these issues all that seriously before because colds seemed minor and no one else was really doing it. Meanwhile, lots of people still did die from the flu every year. As we know, Asians approached all this quite differently thanks to a long history of crowded cities and pandemics and it contributed quite materially to lower death rates there.

Since these things are largely social norms, perhaps the bigger question is not who will be wearing masks 1 year from now, when many will, but 5 years from now when this is all a distant memory. If you are the only person wearing a mask around, will you continue to do so? You may say so now, but who really knows.

Still, it’s been awful nice not having a cold this year. Would hope we might remember that going forward.

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