As the flu season that wasn’t comes to a close, a New Jersey epidemiologist suggests that perhaps people should consider wearing masks again next winter, even if the novel coronavirus pandemic is behind us.

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Flu season isn’t technically over until May but it is usually barely measurable beyond March. However, despite concerns last fall about a "twindemic" in which COVID-19 and flu would combine to overwhelm hospitals, the 2020-21 flu season was all but nonexistent.

There are lessons to be learned from that, said Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University.

“One of the things that I think we can take away from this is that there is clear evidence based on flu incidence and mortality rates from this past season compared to previous seasons that masks and social distancing work for respiratory diseases, whether it’s the cold or flu or coronavirus,” Silvera said.

“So one thing that we can learn is that in the coming cold and flu seasons, if you’re going to be in a crowded, public, particularly indoor space, we should encourage people to continue to wear masks in those situations,” she said. “Or if they’re showing symptoms, to wear a mask to protect other people.”

Masks and handwashing would be more practical to continue than the physical distancing that’s been created through online schooling and telecommuting. It’s also possible that more people got flu shots this year, as had been urged, though vaccination rates for this past season aren’t yet available.

But the same strategies recommended for dealing with COVID-19 also knocked down the flu, state data shows:

  • No children died from the flu in New Jersey this winter for the first time in four years and just the third time in the last 15 years. Only one child has died from the flu in the whole country this winter, compared with 198 a year earlier.
  • Last season, 57 children in New Jersey experienced a severe flu illness. This year, only one did.
  • There were 120 respiratory outbreaks in long-term care facilities in New Jersey in the 2019-20 flu season. This past season, there were four.
  • There have been 144 positive PCR flu tests in New Jersey this season, compared with 11,489 last season. (There were also 16,668 positive rapid tests for flu last year, but similar data isn’t on this season’s flu report.)
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People may be tired of wearing masks, and they’re highly unlikely to be required once the public health emergency subsides, but Silvera said it’s something people could choose to do.

“I don’t know that we’ll have a mandate to be able to require it, but I think that there’s an argument to be made that mask-wearing can reduce transmission of respiratory illnesses, particularly if you’re talking about the person who is ill or potentially ill wearing the mask to protect others,” Silvera said. “And so, if you’re going to be riding the subway for example to get to your job, wearing a mask in the future might be a good idea. It might be something we all need to consider.”

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