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Editorial

Mask up: Winter surge in COVID, other respiratory illnesses shouldn’t be ignored | COMMENTARY

Tanvi Nayak, 22, receives a bivalent COVID-19 booster from pharmacist Morgan Murphy at a CVS store in Chicago on Oct. 13, 2022. In Maryland, 81% of those eligible to receive the shot have not gotten it. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)

First, the good news: No one on the local, state or federal level appears ready to impose mask mandates or lockdowns anytime soon, despite a leap in COVID hospitalizations, which are up 49% in Maryland to 551 from a 6-month low of 369 just three weeks ago on Nov. 18, pre-Thanksgiving celebrations.

And now the bad: You’re going to have to reinstate some pandemic best practices on your own if you want to protect yourself and your loved ones during the winter holidays and associated indoor gatherings — especially as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the worst flu season in a decade join with new COVID variations to form a “tripledemic.” It’s no wonder the public health community is increasingly worried about a winter collision course.

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The last thing we want is to return to the days of hospitals becoming so crowded that they can’t handle the onslaught. So, foremost among the precautions you should take are two key actions.

One: Wear a mask when gathering indoors with others outside your immediate family, whether at your local Target store or your Uncle Lester’s Christmas Eve extravaganza. And preferably choose the disposable, medical masks that are most effective at preventing transmission, not the fabric kind. Do we relish the thought of wearing masks? Nope, not even a little bit. But they work, not just on COVID, but on other airborne illnesses, including the flu and RSV.

And two: Get your annual flu vaccine and the COVID booster shots (and the original COVID vaccines if you’re among the small number of Maryland holdouts). According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 19% of Marylanders over the age of 5 have received a dose of the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine, which is better than the national average of 12.7%, but still pathetic. As CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has noted, “The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant. They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants.”

The CDC guidelines for prevention should seem familiar by the third winter of the pandemic, but they bear repeating. In addition to wearing masks indoors and getting your vaccinations up to date, the guidance includes keeping social distances from others, avoiding people who have tested positive (or been exposed to those who have), washing hands regularly, and seeking treatment through your health care provider if you test positive or experience symptoms.

No one wants a return to the days of forced precautions, but we would like to see our elected leaders and the medical community more actively engaged with the public about this problem right now. Let’s go back to the days of announcing statistics — this time including COVID, flu and RSV hospitalizations and deaths — and of regular reminders of what people can do to voluntarily to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

And then if things grow worse and mandates are again considered, the possibility won’t seem so draconian. That’s not because anyone wants mandates imposed — the downside of such an approach, from learning loss to small business bankruptcies, has become painfully obvious — but because some measure of transparency is the best way to ensure the public will trust that difficult actions may nevertheless be in their best interests.

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Americans hated COVID. And we’re growing to hate the tripledemic, too. But we are not powerless. There are so many effective countermeasures we can take — if we can summon the will to use them.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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