Health

Worcester health officials are calling for indoor masking — but not just for COVID

RSV is one of the viruses contributing to a sharp increase in pediatric hospitalizations. 

Worcester health officials have recommended mask wearing amid a rise in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can result in more severe illness among young children. Pictured: Arianna Licona, 6, leads a class of first grader into the Hill School for the first day of classes in Revere on Aug. 25, 2021.

Worcester health officials are urging residents to wear masks to help prevent further strain on hospitals amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, flu season, and an “uncharacteristic” rise in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

In a Friday release, city health officials strongly recommended masking for children at least 2 years old, as well as their family and caretakers. All residents who are indoors around others — or in crowded outdoor public spaces — should also mask up, they said. 

Younger children hit harder

RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, and most affected people recover in one to two weeks, according to the release. However, young children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems can experience more serious illness, including bronchitis and pneumonia, Worcester health officials explained. 

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“Although there is no specific treatment or vaccine for RSV, spread can be prevented by covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing your hands with soap and water, cleaning infected surfaces, and staying home when sick,” they said. “Anyone experiencing severe symptoms such as decrease in appetite, fever, or wheezing should contact their doctor.”

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Health officials also encouraged staying up to date on flu and COVID-19 vaccines to avoid serious complications. Worcester has several weekly free vaccination clinics throughout the city. 

RSV is one of the viruses contributing to an uptick in respiratory illness among children, resulting in a sharp increase in hospitalizations. 

“The number of cases that we’re seeing is maybe 50 to 70 percent higher than a typical year,” Dr. Timothy Gibson, a pediatrician at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, told Boston 25. “And it’s still early in the season.”

Dr. Michael Hirsh, medical director for Worcester’s Division of Public Health, told the station that “the availability of pediatric ICU beds in Massachusetts is at DefCon 5.”

Mass General for Children told Boston.com last month that the viral season has started much earlier this year. It also appears to be more severe, with patients often presenting with not just one virus, but often two or even three, the hospital said.

“We think at least part of this trend is due to kids going back to school unmasked after 2 years of social distancing and masking,” MGfC said. “They are catching colds and bringing them home to their younger siblings who may not be able to tolerate them as well.”

What does it mean for the schools? 

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rachel Monárrez told the Telegram & Gazette that masks will continue to be optional for Worcester students, and that she doesn’t expect to implement a mask mandate. 

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“We will work in collaboration with our Department of Public Health and continue to watch, observe and make decisions,” Monárrez told the newspaper.

Asked if the uptick in RSV could lead to a mask mandate or collection of data on the virus’s impact districtwide, she told the Telegram & Gazette she would look to Director of Nursing and Health Services Dr. Debra McGovern. 

In an email to Boston.com, McGovern said the issue will be a topic of discussion when she meets with city health officials Wednesday.

“We are seeing a lot of colds, most likely secondary to RSV in our elementary age students,” she said. “We can only record in a student health record if we are provided with a diagnosis from a [primary care provider], so we do not have true numbers to share.”

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