Crowded grocery stores, bustling airports, packed concerts and busy office buildings all shared one thing in common this spring and summer: noticeably fewer masks in sight.
“The short answer is, I think, yes,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine — especially if you are at high risk for a serious case of COVID-19.
Age is one factor that increases a person’s risk of severe disease. For instance, Schaffner says folks in their 70s are more at risk than people in their 60s, and people in their 80s are at higher risk than those in their 70s.
“In addition, as we get older, we have a tendency to accumulate chronic conditions, and if you have one or more of these things, it further increases the risk,” he says. Diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and obesity are a few examples of health issues that can make a person more vulnerable to the virus.
“I think you have to decide: What do I have to lose if I get COVID? Do I have the potential for some severe health consequences? Do I have the potential to miss out on important responsibilities?” says Marc Siegel, M.D., professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine. There’s also the potential for long COVID, protracted illness that research shows affects about 1 in 10 adults who have a coronavirus infection.
More than COVID
Experts say another reason to consider masking up in crowded situations is that other respiratory viruses that pose a threat to older adults — flu and RSV, for example — tend to pick up their activity in the fall and winter months. And a mask can help prevent an infection from these bugs as well, since they are transmitted the same way as the coronavirus.
Pointing to periods during the COVID-19 pandemic when masks were more widely used, Siegel says “the flu season stopped in its tracks.” There were approximately 5,000 deaths in the U.S. from the flu in the 2021–2022 season, federal data shows. In the years that preceded the pandemic, annual influenza death tolls ranged from 25,000 to 52,000.
Similarly, cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) plummeted during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “And then, as soon as masks came off, suddenly there was a huge outbreak of RSV,” Siegel says. “So the viruses didn’t go away, they just didn’t have an opportunity to spread because people were wearing masks and washing their hands.”