Worcester health officials are calling for masks, but not just for COVID

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

Worcester health officials have recommended wearing a mask amid a rise in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can lead to more severe illness among young children. Pictured: Arianna Licona, 6, leads a first-grade class at Hill School for the first day of school in River 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” increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases.

In an announcement Friday, city health officials strongly recommend masking for children at least 2 years old, as well as their families and caregivers. Any 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, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems can develop more serious illness, including bronchitis and pneumonia, Worcester health officials explained.

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

Health officials also encouraged keeping up with 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 increase in respiratory illnesses among children, leading to a sharp increase in hospitalizations.

“The number of cases 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 in the beginning of the season.”

Dr. Michael Hirsch, medical director of the Worcester Department 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 virus season 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 believe that at least part of this trend is due to children returning to school without a mask after 2 years of social distancing and masking,” MGfC said. “They catch colds and take them home to their younger siblings, who may also not tolerate them.”

What does this mean for schools?

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rachel Monares told the Telegram and newspaper that masks will continue to be optional for Worcester students and that she does not expect to implement a mask mandate.

“We will work in collaboration with our public health department and continue to monitor, monitor and make decisions,” Monares told the newspaper.

Asked if the rise in RSV could lead to a mask mandate or data collection on the virus’s impact across the region, she told Telegram and newspaper she would seek out 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 on Wednesday.

“We are seeing a lot of colds, most likely secondary to RSV, in our elementary school students,” she said. “We can only record in the student’s health record if we are provided with a diagnosis of a [primary care provider]so we don’t have real numbers to share.”

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