With Early Flu Season, COVID Still Spreading, CDC Says You May Want to Mask Up

'One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on,' CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said

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The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions brought to Philadelphia a holiday season message -- you may want to consider masking up with flu, COVID and RSV spreading and vaccinations lagging.

"Every year clinicians worry about respiratory virus season," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. "And one day -- probably including COVID -- where it will be on the menu of all those other respiratory viruses that we can prevent, but we also have to address every season."

Walensky, in a call with CNBC and other reporters earlier this week, said wearing a mask is one of several everyday precautions that people can take to reduce their chances of catching or spreading a respiratory virus during the busy holiday season.

"We also encourage you to wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses," Walensky said, particularly people living in areas with high levels of COVID transmission.

The CDC director said the agency is considering expanding its system of COVID community levels to include other respiratory viruses such as the flu. The system is the basis for when CDC advises the public to wear masks. But Walensky encouraged the public to take proactive action.

"One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on," Walensky said. "We would encourage all of those preventive measures — hand washing, staying home when you're sick, masking, increased ventilation — during respiratory virus season, but especially in areas of high COVID-19 community levels."

The CDC continues to recommend masking for anyone travelling by plane, train, bus or other forms of public transportation, Walensky said. Those with weak immune systems or face a heightened risk of severe disease should also consider wearing a mask, the CDC director said.

Walensky was in Philadelphia Tuesday to attend the 2022 Bloomberg American Health Summit. She spoke to NBC10's Karen Hua about the concerns that this early flu season has added and what people can do to keep themselves and loved ones safe.

Flu season over the past two years were mild as members of the community masked up. NBC10’s Karen Hua spoke with the director of the CDC Dr. Rochelle Walensky about what this season could look like as well as the rise of RSV and COVID cases.

Wearing masks and distancing over the past two holiday seasons of COVID helped curb flu transmission, Walensky noted.

"Because we haven't had a lot of flu over the past two seasons we haven't built up a community immunity," she said.

The flu arrived early and hit the U.S. hard -- the CDC lists influenza as high nationwide -- with hospitalizations at a decade high for this time of year. More than 8.7 million people have fallen ill, 78,000 have been hospitalized, and 4,500 people have died from flu so far this season, according to CDC data.

The earlier flu season comes against a backdrop of less immunity at baseline and fewer people getting flu shots.

Walensky strongly encouraged everyone eligible to receive their flu shot and COVID booster. Flu vaccination coverage is lagging for at-risk groups — children under age 5, pregnant women and at-risk seniors — compared with last year, the CDC director said. There is no vaccine for RSV.

Walensky hopes people consider getting vaccinated ahead of holiday gatherings.

"Listen we really want people to be together, we want people to be connected, we want them to be safe," Walensky said. "The best way to do that is take those prevention measures and get your vaccines."

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