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NPR Coronavirus Updates

Should Masking Last Beyond The Pandemic? Flu And Colds Are Down, Spurring A Debate


Masks and social distancing are doing more than just stopping the spread of COVID-19. Doctors say they're also keeping people from getting all kinds of illnesses. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has more.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The teachers at New Hope Academy in Franklin, Tenn., were chatting the other day. The private Christian school has met in person throughout much of the pandemic, requiring masks and trying to keep kids apart. And Nicole Grayson says they realized something.

NICOLE GRAYSON: We don't know anybody that's gotten the flu. I don't know if a student has gotten strep throat.

FARMER: At this point, it's not just an anecdote. A study released in the Journal of Hospital Medicine found the number of pediatric patients hospitalized for respiratory illnesses is down by two-thirds. Adults aren't getting sick either. U.S. flu deaths this season will be measured in the hundreds instead of thousands.

AMY VEHEC: And I'm sorry to interrupt. But I have an extra card compared to the number of shots I have.

FARMER: Dr. Amy Vehec is a pediatrician at a low-income clinic busy giving COVID vaccines these days. She says it's not just the masks and social distance, it's become a serious societal faux pas to go anywhere with a fever. So parents don't send their kids to school. And they likely isolate as well.

VEHEC: They are doing a better job staying home when they're sick.

FARMER: And that could be kept up after the pandemic without too much trouble. But the isolation, the distance and the masks, it's not working for many kids. Those with speech trouble aren't seeing their teachers' mouths to learn how to speak correctly, for instance.

VEHEC: I think it's been a necessary evil because of the pandemic. And I have completely supported it. But it's had prices. It's had consequences. And kids' education is really suffering, among other things.

FARMER: And with the COVID vaccines not being authorized for children, it may be another year of masks in schools. There are some arguing that Americans should embrace masking more permanently like some Asian countries have. But even infectious disease experts, like Dr. Ricardo Franco of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, doubt that's practical.

RICARDO FRANCO: I'm a little skeptical that this crisis will be enough for widespread culture change based on how difficult has been to achieve a reasonable culture shift in the previous months.

FARMER: The most realistic setting for lasting change may be within health care itself. Doctors and nurses didn't usually wear masks before COVID. Dr. Duane Harrison directs an emergency department for a national hospital chain. He says they used to rag on a physician who's worn a mask since he got out of medical school.

DUANE HARRISON: We used to joke and clown with him about this until this.

FARMER: Unless they were out with COVID, Harrison's staff hasn't been calling out sick. So he's a believer. Some hospital systems have started to relax universal masking requirements for their staff. But even those staffers who are vaccinated still have to wear a mask when seeing patients.

HARRISON: This is a practice that most of us will probably continue because we won't be worried about runny-nosed kids and elderly people who don't know they're sneezing in your face and that kind of thing.

JOSHUA BAROCAS: The larger question is, is everyone going to need a break?

FARMER: Dr. Joshua Barocas specializes in infectious diseases at Boston University. And he says even doctors and nurses are ready to see smiling faces again.

BAROCAS: I know that I'm going to need to retire my masks at some point in the future for a little bit.

FARMER: Just not for the next few months, at least, as we wait for more Americans to be fully vaccinated.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.