NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Masks and physical distancing are proving to have major fringe benefits, keeping people from getting all kinds of illnesses — not just COVID-19. But it’s unclear whether the protocols will be worth the pain in the long run.
The teachers at New Hope Academy in Franklin, Tennessee, 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, to the degree it is possible with young children. And Nicole Grayson, who teaches fourth grade, said they realized something peculiar.
“We don’t know anybody that has gotten the flu,” she said. “I don’t know of a student that has gotten strep throat.”
It’s not just an anecdote.
A study released in March in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, led by researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, found that across 44 children’s hospitals the number of pediatric patients hospitalized for respiratory illnesses is down 62%. The number of kids in the U.S. who have died of the flu this season remains in the single digits. Deaths have dropped dramatically, too, compared with the past 10 years: The number of flu deaths among children is usually between 100 and 200 per year, but so far only one child has died from the disease in the U.S. during the 2020-21 flu season.
Adults aren’t getting sick either. U.S. flu deaths this season will be measured in the hundreds instead of thousands. In 2018-19, a moderate flu season, an estimated 34,200 Americans died.
It’s not just the masks and physical distancing that are tamping down communicable disease, said Dr. Amy Vehec, a pediatrician at Mercy Community Healthcare, a Tennessee clinic that gets federal funding. It’s become a serious societal faux pas to go anywhere with a fever — so parents don’t send their ailing kids to school, she said.
“They are doing a better job of staying home when they’re sick,” Vehec said. That includes adults who may feel ill.
Isolating when feeling bad could be kept up after the pandemic. But the isolation, the distance and the masks are not working for many kids, Vehec said.
Children with speech trouble aren’t seeing their teacher’s mouth to learn how to speak correctly, for instance.