Social distancing and mask mandates during the pandemic nearly eliminated cases of the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) among children, a new study finds.
"Numbers don't lie. Face masking, and proper hygiene and isolation, can be effective means to protect the vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and young children, during the respiratory virus season," said study author Dr. Osama El-Assal, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio.
Seasonal flu can be deadly for medically vulnerable children, and RSV causes about 300,000 emergency room visits a year in the United States, the researchers noted.
Like the rest of the nation, Ohio instituted school closings, travel restrictions, social distancing and face masking in March 2020.
To assess how social distancing and face masking measures affected rates of flu and RSV, researchers compared cases at Akron Children's from October 2020 through April 2021, and over the same period in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
Peak incidence of RSV occurred in December during the 2018-2019 (28.9%) and 2019-2020 (24.7%) seasons. But there were no cases of RSV at the hospital during the 2020-2021 season.
Meanwhile, peak incidence of influenza A virus occurred in February during the 2018-2019 (40.9 %) and 2019-2020 (24.1%) seasons. Influenza B had a low incidence throughout 2018-2019 (average of 0.3%), with a peak during January in the 2019-2020 season (24%).
During the 2020-2021 season, there were only two cases of influenza B virus and no cases of influenza A virus.
But soon after social distancing rules were relaxed in Ohio in March 2021, viral infections like RSV returned.
The findings will be presented Saturday at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The findings suggest that social distancing and mask mandates are effective ways to reduce the rates of potentially serious infections like influenza and RSV in children, the researchers concluded.
"It can be a simple non-medicinal way to save lives," El-Assal said in an AAP news release.
It's likely that school closures and travel restrictions also helped drive down flu and RSV cases, but their effect wasn't evaluated in the study.
Previous research has suggested that social distancing and the use of face masks can reduce the transmission of flu viruses.
The American Lung Association has more on RSV.
SOURCE: American Academy of Pediatrics, news release, Oct. 8, 2021