You just arrived when life seemed good again.
Cold and flu germs, which had almost disappeared for two years, are making a comeback, according to doctors and state disease investigators.
As we mask less and hug and shake hands more, “there is greater transmission of virus,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, hospital epidemiologist for Stanford Health Care.
Certainly, COVID-19 is still spreading.
But other long-lost diseases are catching up. In the schools, “it’s not COVID,” Salinas said. “Everybody has a cough and one thing or another.”
For a long time, masks and social distancing have done an excellent job of keeping us safe. But now we’ve gotten casual. I know this is true because as of this writing my only friend is a large box of Kleenex.
Not just me: we’re all returning to our hangouts and discovering the kind of liberation that comes with a sold-out immunization card.
“People are moving more,” says Dr. UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Peter Chin-Hong and share their germs with others.
Several other things are driving the trend, he said.
This year’s flu vaccine was a flop. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a discrepancy between the virus strains in the vaccine and what is circulating. The 2021-2022 flu shots were only 16% effective in reducing a person’s risk of getting a mild or moderate infection – compared to some previous years when rates reached as high as 50% or 60%.
While the country’s overall influenza activity begins to fall, it remains elevated or is increasing in certain regions, including parts of the West.
Second, we touch everything again. It was reassuring when COVID research showed there was no need to wash mail and groceries. But – surprise! – Cold rhinoviruses are more resilient than coronaviruses. They can survive longer on surfaces. And they’re harder to wash off your hands.
After all, our immune system has forgotten what these routine viruses look like.
“We have been in ‘COVID country’ for the past two years,” Chin-Hong said. “So we don’t have that much immunity to all these other things.”
After nearly 28 months of panicking at the first sign of illness, it’s unsettling to experience a runny nose, stuffy head, coughing and sneezing. Because COVID-19 and the flu share similar symptoms, the only way to find out which one you have is with a COVID test, the CDC says.
Over time, society will adjust to this higher risk of common ailments, doctors said. It’s part of regaining some semblance of normalcy.
But COVID has taught us some lessons that can help reduce transmission of these routine and pesky germs, Salinas and Chin-Hong said. For example, our buildings will be better ventilated. We’ve learned that it’s important to socially distance — even stay home — when you’re sick.
That mask? Don’t throw it yet.
“I hope our culture will change,” Chin-Hong said. “Wearing a mask even with mild symptoms – that’s good for all of us.
“I hope that’s the legacy of the last few years.”