Optional masking during cold and flu seasons could be the new norm

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- For many in the community, life has returned back to normal, but mask-wearing requirements still exist in a number of situations. Public health experts say the culture surrounding masks may also stick with people past the pandemic.

"A lot of people didn't experience coughs and colds and stuffy noses because a lot of precautions were being taken, including wearing masks," said Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences at UW-Madison.

Epidemiologist Ajay Sethi says as people make the return to normal, distancing has decreased and more people are traveling, but masks are still required on public transportation, airlines and in some hospitals.

Area doctors believe mask-wearing in hospitals will be required for some time.

"For no other reason but because we have, number one -- a large portion of unvaccinated individuals, and I think number two -- because even for some people who are vaccinated, some have severe immunocompromise," said Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and medical director at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

From September 27, 2020 to April 3, 2021 only 0.2-percent of influenza tests returned positive in the U.S.

"I do think that mask-wearing as we've seen it over the past year really contributed to next to no influenza season over the past year," said Darren Rausch, health director/officer at the Greenfield Health Department.

While public health experts don’t believe masking will be required in many settings in the future, it could be a preventative measure in the spread of illnesses during cold and flu seasons.

"People would tell me all the time, don’t shake my hand, I've got a cold. I would do the same, and if we add masks to that sort of culture, it's sort of a respectful thing to do," adds Sethi.

"I think it could lead to the decrease-- significant decrease, likely -- in lots of respiratory diseases during the winter months," Rausch says.

Sethi believes while masks may not be required, workplaces and stores may just offer them next to a box of tissues and hand sanitizer if people are feeling sick and want to wear one.

"There's going to be some people who will embrace this and there are others who won't. They might forget the benefits of mask use or some people might just be more defiant about wearing a mask, but this is not about making a requirement, this is just about shifting the culture," Sethi said.

Sethi says for people who are unvaccinated, masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is still incredibly important.

The CDC still recommends unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people to mask up.

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