The profile of a person wearing a surgical mask.
Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • The CDC director encouraged people to wear masks to protect against a variety of respiratory illnesses over the holidays.
  • Flu, RSV, and COVID-19 infections are all driving up hospitalizations nationwide.
  • Masks are an important tool to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses. Getting a flu shot and staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations provide maximum protection. 

In a December 5 call, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky encouraged people to wear “high-quality, well-fitting masks” as a precaution against respiratory illnesses this holiday season. This advice is especially important for people who live in areas with medium to high COVID-19 transmission, about 30 percent of the population. One way to check your area’s COVID-19 transmission is to use the CDC’s COVID-19 by county tracker.

Well-fitted N95 and KN95 masks provide the highest level of protection against respiratory illnesses. Several large studies have found that masking in schools and at the community level significantly reduced COVID-19  transmission. These masks have more layers of protection than surgical or cloth masks, enabling them to trap 95 percent of airborne particles. The CDC offers a tool to find free N95 masks at local pharmacies and community centers. You can also use online guides to help you find the best high-quality masks. 

Experts warned of a winter “tripledemic” as signs of a bad flu season and rising respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases in children threatened to combine with the expected winter COVID-19 wave and overwhelm hospitals. Throughout October and November, RSV infections along with other common respiratory viruses contributed to a surge in pediatric hospitalizations. Fortunately, RSV cases appear to have peaked in some regions, with national cases declining for the last three weeks. 

This year’s flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory with over 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths since October and higher positive flu tests and flu hospitalizations occurring much earlier in the year than expected. After a relative slump over the last few months, COVID-19 hospitalizations are again rising in the weeks leading up to the winter holiday season. 

Masks are an easy way to protect yourself and your family from all the respiratory bugs going around. In addition to masks, there are other steps that can be taken to make your holiday gatherings safer, including improving air circulation and avoiding in-person events when you feel sick.