Two women wear masks outside Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan during...

Two women wear masks outside Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Credit: Getty Images/Cindy Ord

With cases of COVID-19, along with other respiratory illnesses such as influenza and RSV, rising again on Long Island, the often-polarizing debate about masking has once again returned to the forefront.

While the “tripledemic” of disease has spiked statewide, the apparent disconnect between the medical community's advice on masking, and the general public's application of those recommendations, has only widened, doctors say.

Health officials advise that masking, along with vaccination, continues to be the safest way to protect yourself, and immunocompromised friends and family members, from contracting the virus.

But after nearly four years of COVID public health recommendations, the general public has become largely ambivalent toward masking, officials said, with facial coverings an afterthought rarely utilized in crowded indoor settings. Two major mask manufacturers have recently shut down.

Here's the latest advice on masking from medical professionals.

 Following a trend from previous winters, cases of COVID, along with hospitalization rates, are once again on the rise. 

The seven-day average of new cases on Long Island on Jan. 1 was 3,621, more than double from two months earlier although down from late-December, state Health Department figures show.

And while cases of severe disease have dropped in recent years, hospitalization rates nearly tripled on the Island between Dec. 1 and Jan. 3, from 229 to 661, the highest in the region in nearly a year, according to state data.

And it's not just COVID. 

Reports of lab-confirmed cases of influenza have been increasing weekly, with more than 28,000 reported across the state for the week ending Dec. 23 — the most recent data available from the State Health Department. So far this winter, 8,324 cases have been reported in Nassau and 8,203 in Suffolk.

And the rate of New Yorkers testing positive for RSV is just under 9% on a three-week rolling average, according to the CDC. Those numbers, however, are trending down from their peak of more than 11% at the start of December, federal figures show.

Masking is recommended in crowded indoor locations with poor ventilation and in locations where the risk of transmission is higher, such as where there's an individual with COVID in the vicinity, said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, a Northwell Health infectious disease specialist.

But Hirsch said he recognizes he's fighting an uphill battle of masking fatigue among the public and the fact that the disease presents itself as merely a bad cold for many young and healthy individuals. 

“But for those of us who are sick, immunocompromised and at advanced age and illness, it's still very dangerous,” said Hirsch, noting that certain types of masks, when properly worn, still provide strong protection against contracting the virus. “And people are still dying of COVID. It's so disappointing to see this virus come back again.”

Masks provide different levels of protection depending on the type and how they are used.

For example, cloth masks provide the least protection, while well-fitting N95 masks offer the highest level of protection, filtering out at least 95% of particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But whatever product you wear, health officials insist it will do little good unless it's worn properly, covering the nose and mouth and fit snugly across the face.

In nearly all locations, no. Shopping centers, airports, public schools and most workplaces have all abandoned mask mandates in recent years and there appears to be little momentum toward bringing them back.

But the exception appears to be in health and hospital settings. 

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. recently issued a mandate requiring everyone who enters its hospitals, community health centers and nursing homes to wear a mask.

“We're talking about places where you have a concentration of people who don't have the same ability to fight off infections, so I don't think it's an unreasonable step to take,” Dr. David Dowdy, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Newsday this week.

Some Long Island hospitals are following suit.

All staff and visitors at NYU Langone-Long Island must wear a mask if they are working at or visiting the emergency departments where immunocompromised patients are receiving care.

Health care workers, visitors and employees at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside and at Northwell Health facilities, encourage, but do not currently require masking.

Stony Brook Medicine requires all health care workers at its four hospitals to wear a mask when providing direct patient care. Patients and visitors are also encouraged to wear a mask.

And all of Long Island's major hospital systems say they're following an order from the state health commissioner requiring staffers who did not get the flu vaccine to wear masks.

With cases of COVID-19, along with other respiratory illnesses such as influenza and RSV, rising again on Long Island, the often-polarizing debate about masking has once again returned to the forefront.

While the “tripledemic” of disease has spiked statewide, the apparent disconnect between the medical community's advice on masking, and the general public's application of those recommendations, has only widened, doctors say.

Health officials advise that masking, along with vaccination, continues to be the safest way to protect yourself, and immunocompromised friends and family members, from contracting the virus.

But after nearly four years of COVID public health recommendations, the general public has become largely ambivalent toward masking, officials said, with facial coverings an afterthought rarely utilized in crowded indoor settings. Two major mask manufacturers have recently shut down.

Here's the latest advice on masking from medical professionals.

Why are we talking about masking again? 

 Following a trend from previous winters, cases of COVID, along with hospitalization rates, are once again on the rise. 

The seven-day average of new cases on Long Island on Jan. 1 was 3,621, more than double from two months earlier although down from late-December, state Health Department figures show.

And while cases of severe disease have dropped in recent years, hospitalization rates nearly tripled on the Island between Dec. 1 and Jan. 3, from 229 to 661, the highest in the region in nearly a year, according to state data.

And it's not just COVID. 

Reports of lab-confirmed cases of influenza have been increasing weekly, with more than 28,000 reported across the state for the week ending Dec. 23 — the most recent data available from the State Health Department. So far this winter, 8,324 cases have been reported in Nassau and 8,203 in Suffolk.

And the rate of New Yorkers testing positive for RSV is just under 9% on a three-week rolling average, according to the CDC. Those numbers, however, are trending down from their peak of more than 11% at the start of December, federal figures show.

What are medical professionals recommending?

Masking is recommended in crowded indoor locations with poor ventilation and in locations where the risk of transmission is higher, such as where there's an individual with COVID in the vicinity, said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, a Northwell Health infectious disease specialist.

But Hirsch said he recognizes he's fighting an uphill battle of masking fatigue among the public and the fact that the disease presents itself as merely a bad cold for many young and healthy individuals. 

“But for those of us who are sick, immunocompromised and at advanced age and illness, it's still very dangerous,” said Hirsch, noting that certain types of masks, when properly worn, still provide strong protection against contracting the virus. “And people are still dying of COVID. It's so disappointing to see this virus come back again.”

For those willing to mask up, which ones are the most effective?

Masks provide different levels of protection depending on the type and how they are used.

For example, cloth masks provide the least protection, while well-fitting N95 masks offer the highest level of protection, filtering out at least 95% of particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But whatever product you wear, health officials insist it will do little good unless it's worn properly, covering the nose and mouth and fit snugly across the face.

What about mask mandates? Are they coming back?

In nearly all locations, no. Shopping centers, airports, public schools and most workplaces have all abandoned mask mandates in recent years and there appears to be little momentum toward bringing them back.

But the exception appears to be in health and hospital settings. 

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. recently issued a mandate requiring everyone who enters its hospitals, community health centers and nursing homes to wear a mask.

“We're talking about places where you have a concentration of people who don't have the same ability to fight off infections, so I don't think it's an unreasonable step to take,” Dr. David Dowdy, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Newsday this week.

Some Long Island hospitals are following suit.

All staff and visitors at NYU Langone-Long Island must wear a mask if they are working at or visiting the emergency departments where immunocompromised patients are receiving care.

Health care workers, visitors and employees at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside and at Northwell Health facilities, encourage, but do not currently require masking.

Stony Brook Medicine requires all health care workers at its four hospitals to wear a mask when providing direct patient care. Patients and visitors are also encouraged to wear a mask.

And all of Long Island's major hospital systems say they're following an order from the state health commissioner requiring staffers who did not get the flu vaccine to wear masks.

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