I’ve been so focused on protecting myself and others from COVID-19 that I forgot about all of the other viruses and ick that were also being deterred because of masking. My body has spent the last week getting reacquainted with its role as germ host, though, and I’m over it. I’m a week into a cold and sinus pressure and my body seems to be working harder than pre-COVID to kick it. The relief and medical benefits of being fully vaccinated are still there, but so are my uncovered airways. I mask when in enclosed, public spaces and when around folks who are not vaccinated, but when I’m outside or around other vaxxed friends, I don’t wear my mask. My instinct to maintain social distancing rules is still there and I’m not on a tour of hugs, but I’ve relaxed my pandemic rules. As a result, my immune system is once again vulnerable to the common germs that were kept away with masking and fewer human interactions.
My state, Vermont, just removed COVID restrictions because 80% of eligible people have been vaccinated so I’m not alone in unmasking; after nearly a year and a half, there are more and more people doing the same and I’ve heard from several people that they have had their first cold in over a year.
Parents I see on soccer and Little League sidelines were complaining about having colds or sinus infections. And a colleague who lives in another state cancelled a Zoom meeting because she felt like garbage and had congestion and zero will to do anything but sleep. We might be vaccinated from COVID-19, but not from the common cold.
I wondered if my immune system had become more susceptible to getting sick since I had lived in isolated circles for so long, but that’s not how our bodies work. Our immune systems are impacted by environment and infectious exposure, but they are formed before we are born and during early childhood and then grow with us; creating clean environments doesn’t weaken our immune systems. Our extra hand-washing and mask-wearing didn’t change how our bodies react to germs; we were simply more protected from them. It makes sense that when we remove those protections there is a chance we’ll get sick.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says he’s also hearing about more people getting sore throats, coughs, and colds now that mask mandates are being lifted. It’s not that colds are not more prevalent than pre-COVID, it’s that COVID risk guarded folks from them. Dr. Schaffner says, “Last year, because of all our masking and social distancing and kids not being in school, we had the lowest flu season in recorded history.”
I haven’t been sick in what suddenly feels like forever, and instead of thousands dying of the flu this year, adult flu deaths have remained in the hundreds. A study done by researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that respiratory illnesses in children is down 62% and only one child died of the flu during the 2020-2021 season. Flu deaths in children usually range from 100-200. Part of this has been the increase in flu vaccines in response to people doing everything possible to eliminate risk factors for the more serious symptoms of a COVID-19 infection. Masks have played a role too and the pandemic has given us solid data to show that community masking can reduce the spread of viruses since we now know the transmission of COVID-19 was reduced or eliminated when masks were worn.
Those of us who wore masks weren’t sheep. We weren’t making political statements—though I didn’t want to be mistaken for a Republican when I showed up at the park without my mask for the first time. We weren’t treating the virus as something more dangerous than it was and still is. We weren’t throwing away freedom. We were staying healthy and doing our part to keep others well too. I’m grateful for a strong immune system, but I don’t know what COVID-19 would have done to me had I been infected. And if I was infected and didn’t know it, I didn’t want to spread it to someone with a compromised immune system. Wearing a mask wasn’t always fun or convenient, but I was happy and proud to do my part.
My kids will be allowed to go without masks while outside at summer camp this year, but we’re still waiting to hear about the indoor rules. My kids are too young to be vaccinated so there is a good chance that the program will require them to mask while inside. I’m fine with that and will likely require that they do so until they get their vaccines. I’m also happy to keep putting off the colds, stomach bugs, and other viruses we have avoided for so long. I told the kids that wearing a mask while out in public from October to February is starting to sound like a good idea if it means less sick days for all of us. They’re not ready to have that conversation.
Ready or not, prepare yourself for a cold-filled summer as the masks come off. The air is hot, and the germs are ready to mingle.