More and more hospitals are requiring masks due to the flu and COVID surge

NEW YORK — More U.S. hospitals are requiring masks and limiting visitors as health officials deal with an expected but still nasty post-holiday spike in flu, COVID-19 and other illnesses.

While many experts say this season likely won't be as deadly as some other recent winters, it could still mean hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and many thousands of deaths across the country.

New York City last week imposed a mask mandate at the city's 11 public hospitals. Similar measures were ordered last week at some hospitals in Los Angeles and Massachusetts. Some hospitals reintroduced masking rules for employees months ago in anticipation of a seasonal influx of sick people.

Flu and COVID-19 infections have been rising for weeks, with high levels of flu-like illnesses reported in 31 states just before Christmas. Updated national figures will be released Friday, but health officials predict infections will rise well into January in many states.

“What we're seeing now, in the first week of January, is actually an acceleration – especially of flu cases,” says Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is good news. Flu and COVID-19 cases could peak toward the end of the month and then decline, Cohen said. Although flu cases are skyrocketing, this year's cases are caused by a strain of flu that typically does not cause as many deaths and hospitalizations as some other flu strains. Moreover, the signs suggest that current flu vaccines are well matched to the strain.

“I don't think it will be overwhelming,” says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. He deemed the current season 'moderately serious'.

The CDC points the public to an agency website where people can look up their county, which can help them make decisions about wearing masks or taking other precautions. Cohen urged people to get vaccinated and seek treatment for flu and COVID-19.

Vaccinations are down this year, officials say. About 44% of U.S. adults had received flu shots as of Dec. 23, according to the most recently available data from the CDC vaccine survey. Only about 19% of U.S. adults had reportedly received an updated COVID-19 shot as of early December.

COVID-19 cases cause more severe illness than the flu, but the increase is less dramatic. Health officials are monitoring JN.1, a new version of the ever-evolving coronavirus. The omicron variant was first discovered in the US in September and was responsible for an estimated 44% of COVID-19 cases just before Christmas.

The JN.1 variant may spread more easily or be better at evading our immune system, but there is no evidence it causes more severe disease than other recent variants, health officials say. Current evidence suggests that vaccines and antiviral medications counteract this.

The CDC has also reported disappointing vaccination rates against another seasonal insect, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. That's a common cause of mild cold symptoms, but it can be dangerous for babies and the elderly. The number of RSV cases rose in the fall, but appears to have plateaued and has even fallen in some places, according to the latest data.

At Hillsdale Hospital in southern Michigan, a 65% increase in respiratory disease activity in late December led to a restriction on visitors at the birthing center. Only a spouse, a support person and grandparents can visit. They must all wear a mask and show no symptoms of illness.

The restriction is common at the hospital around this time of year, said Dr. Nichole Ellis, a pediatrician and the hospital's medical chief of staff. But this season is more difficult, she added.

“In the past, we would have one disease that we would track or monitor at a time,” Ellis said. “But now babies and children will have multiple diseases at the same time. It's not that they just have RSV … but they get RSV and COVID at the same time, or flu and RSV at the same time, because all the diseases are common in our community.”

___

Kenya Hunter in Atlanta contributed.

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