Health Advice



Dramatic drop in common viruses raises question: Masks forever?

Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio on

Published in Health & Fitness

“I think it has been a necessary evil because of the pandemic, and I have completely supported it, but it has had prices. It’s had consequences,” she said. “Kids’ education is suffering, among other things.”

And with COVID-19 vaccines unavailable to children for a while yet, it may be another year of masks in schools.

Some experts, like researchers trying to improve masks, argue that more societies should embrace masking — as some Asian countries have. But even infectious disease experts like Dr. Ricardo Franco of the University of Alabama at Birmingham doubt that’s practical.

“I’m a little skeptical that this crisis will be enough for a widespread culture change, given how difficult it’s been to achieve a reasonable culture shift in the previous months,” Franco said.

The most realistic setting for lasting change may be within health care itself.

Doctors and nurses didn’t usually wear masks before COVID-19. Dr. Duane Harrison, who directs an emergency department for an HCA hospital outside Nashville, mentioned a physician colleague who has worn a mask since he got out of medical school.

“We used to joke and clown with him about this,” Harrison said. “Until this.”

Now that everyone wears masks, Harrison’s department has found the same thing many other workplaces have: Employees aren’t calling out sick, unless it’s COVID-19.

“When COVID’s done, this is a practice that most of us will probably continue,” Harrison said. “Because we won’t be worried about runny-nose kids and elderly people who don’t know they’re sneezing in your face.”


Some hospital systems, including Nebraska Medicine, have started to relax universal masking requirements for their staffs. But even vaccinated staffers still have to wear a mask when seeing patients. Intermountain Healthcare in Utah has signaled masks will continue to be required when a statewide mandate lifts in April.

But even believers in the effectiveness of masks have their doubts about the medical community keeping it up.

“The larger question is: Is everyone going to need a break?” asked Dr. Joshua Barocas, who studies infectious diseases at Boston University.

Whatever the future holds, public health officials say, the time has not yet come to drop mask requirements as the U.S. waits for more people to get a COVID-19 vaccine. But eventually, even doctors and nurses are ready to see smiling faces again.

“I know I’m going to need to retire my masks at some point in the future,” Barocas said, “for a little bit.”


(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation. This story is part of a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and KHN.)

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