University of Michigan experts: Masks still effective way to stay healthy during ‘tripledemic’ viral season

Influenza, RSV cases skyrocketed this season

FILE - People wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, travel on a metro in Berlin, Germany, March 31, 2022. A German doctor has been sentenced to two years and nine months in prison for illegally issuing more than 4,000 people with exemptions from wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File) (Pavel Golovkin, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Among the mitigation strategies to prevent transmission of the many viruses going around right now, experts at Michigan Medicine say wearing face masks around others still proves to be one of the most effective ways to avoid getting sick.

Viruses like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, have skyrocketed over the past few months. The presence of these respiratory viruses in addition to new COVID-19 cases sparked a “tripledemic,” and hospitals nationwide -- including pediatric facilities -- approached or reached full capacity in the fall.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national hospitalizations due to influenza are the highest they’ve been in 10 years. As of Dec. 30, 2022, there have been 61 pediatric deaths from influenza so far this season.

According to epidemiologists at Michigan Medicine, their research has found that young children are particularly susceptible to contracting respiratory viruses, since several illnesses can circulate at once in classrooms. Many children have been testing positive for two or three viruses when presenting with illness this season, they said.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers had been studying how effective masks are at reducing the spread of other viruses like SARS in 2002-2003. Then, research found that N95 masks are twice as effective at averting infection.

A study at the University of Michigan in 2006 and 2007 involving more than 1,000 students examined how effective mask-wearing was at preventing the spread of symptomatic respiratory illness. They found the masks reduced the risk, especially when combined with hand hygiene.

Recent studies have shown that surgical masks worn in indoor public settings reduce the chance of testing positive for COVID-19 by 66%, while N95/KN95 have reduced those odds by 83%.

The researchers said their findings extended to classrooms, which showed children living in school districts with mask mandates in the fall of 2021 experienced a reduction in infections of the highly transmissible COVID-19 delta variant than those without a mask mandate.

“Masks can reduce transmission for all respiratory viruses, with no need to tailor the intervention to the specific virus that is circulating,” wrote U-M professors in epidemiology Marisa Eisenberg and Emily Toth Martin in a recent article. “Masks remain a low-cost, low-tech way to keep people healthier throughout the holiday season so that more of us can be free of illness for the time that we value with our family and friends.”