Experts: More illnesses are spreading as people's COVID guard drops

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Earaches, stuffy noses and other illnesses that were absent during the pandemic have returned as people begin to gather more and go without masks, experts say.

Earaches, stuffy noses and other illnesses that were absent during the pandemic have returned as people begin to gather more and go without masks, experts say.

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As people cast off their masks and venture outside more freely, doctors said they’re seeing more cases of non-COVID illness than they have in months.

“The common cold and the viruses that we usually see haven’t really been around this past year with COVID, with the social distancing and masking and hand-washing,” said Dr. Steven Valassis, chairman of emergency medicine at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport. “As we now start to unmask and get together with people, you’re going to see an uptick in the normal viruses we see every year — nothing alarming, just normal stuff.”

Other Connecticut health experts agreed the loosening of pandemic-related restrictions has meant the return of rhinoviruses, earaches and other common illnesses that were not being transmitted when people were staying home and masking up.

“We’re not seeing anything specific,” said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease at Bridgeport Hospital. “We are seeing a lot less COVID, but we are seeing a lot of people who are sick.”

That includes children. Dr. Sanford Swidler, a pediatrician with Stamford Health, said he’s seen a “pretty dramatic” resurgence in common childhood illnesses that had been largely absent over the past year.

“We’re seeing the old stuff — the colds, and the fevers and the earaches,” he said. “We think it’s directly related to kids being back doing normal things. They’re back to school and back to day care.”

During the pandemic, people have been more vigilant about hand-washing and staying home when sick, doctors said. People have also been wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines that have resulted in fewer opportunities to spread germs, doctors said.

Experts said perhaps the clearest example of COVID’s impact on other illnesses is this year’s nearly non-existent flu season. According to the latest numbers from the state Department of Public Health, 170 people tested positive for the flu in Connecticut as of May 15. There have been 14 people hospitalized and one flu-related death, the data shows.

In comparison, there were a total of 3,013 people hospitalized with the flu, 79 flu-related deaths and 12,953 people had tested positive last season.

“We just came through a whole year virtually no flu,” Saul said. “So, what’s going to happen now that we’re getting back into the world and not wearing masks?”

Valassis said he hasn’t seen an alarming number of colds. It just seems dramatic since these illnesses were largely absent for so long, he said.

“It’s just proportionate to what you’d expect to see,” he said.

But he and others said there are ways for people to protect themselves from illness while also enjoying fewer pandemic restrictions.

When people get sick, they often might not be taking proper care of themselves, said Sheree Piperidis, clinical associate professor of physician assistant studies at Quinnipiac University.

“People need to make sure they get enough rest and stay hydrated throughout the day,” she said. “Eating a well-balanced diet is also helpful to supporting your immune system.”

Maintaining some pandemic-era habits, such as regular hand-washing and staying home when sick, could also be helpful, Valssis said.

“There was a time when people came to work when they had sniffles or were sick,” he said. “That changed with COVID and I don’t think we’re going back to that.”