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COVID-19 safety protocols may have affected our immune systems

Subbotina Anna/ Adobe Stock

Face masks and social distancing have helped limit the spread of COVID-19 for the past year and a half, but health officials believe these protocols may have also weakened our immune responses to other viruses.

Dr. Ann Falsey, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Rochester Medical Center, said COVID-19 protocols have limited the public’s exposure to viruses and bacteria that would normally help boost the immune system.

She said this may cause more severe symptoms as restrictions loosen and these viruses resurface.

“There is concern that the flu, respiratory syncytial virus, and other virus waves might be worse because people are less immune since they've had a year and a half of hiding in their homes,” Falsey said.

She said the pandemic has also caused these seasonal viruses to emerge at odd times of the year. Influenza and RSV, for example, are normally prevalent during the winter months, but they're currently affecting young children in some Southern states. She said this could be an indicator of what to anticipate this coming flu season.

“I think that we should be prepared that it might well happen,” Falsey said. “That it's a bad cold and flu season; so let's just all be sensible.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory earlier this month about increased RSV activity in the South. 

"Due to reduced circulation of RSV during the winter months of 2020–2021, older infants and toddlers might now be at increased risk of severe RSV-associated illness since they have likely not had typical levels of exposure to RSV during the past 15 months," the advisory stated.

Falsey said those with underlying health conditions may still want to consider wearing a mask when in public even if they’re vaccinated, and continue practicing safe hygiene methods like washing your hands, covering your cough, and staying home when you have a cold.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.