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Does it seem like everyone you know is getting sick recently? Here’s why, and what to do about it.

Doctors say a surge in respiratory illness statewide is caused by holiday travel, cold weather, and decreased precaution.

It didn’t usually take long for Kathy Gips to recover from sickness. A respiratory illness might knock her down for a few days, but with one more day of rest and medications, she’d typically recover to her usual health.

But when the Jamaica Plain resident came down with an undiagnosed bout of what she thought might be laryngitis last month, she found herself isolated and couch-ridden, unable to talk or swallow for a whole week, with two more weeks before she fully recovered.

“I haven’t been that sick in decades, which totally knocked me out,” Gips, a retired consultant, said. “I’m going to be 75, so there’s kind of this countdown — like how many weeks do you have left in your life? ... I just lost a week, and I don’t have that many left.”


Gips is among a surge of people in Massachusetts who have fallen ill recently, a pattern typical for this time of year. As respiratory illness season returns, the state has seen high levels of influenza, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), according to state data. With people returning to work and school as the new year begins, offices and classrooms are marked by sickness-related absences, coughs, sneezes, and runny noses, with many noticing a familiar wintertime phenomenon — it seems like everyone, in one way or another, is getting sick. But after four years of COVID, doctors say we have tools for managing that.

Dr. Michael Richardson, vice president of the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians and an area medical director for Carbon Health, said that during spikes in respiratory illness, he recommends returning to early-pandemic masking practices, if only for a few weeks at a time.

“This is a good insight into how illnesses are going to be moving forward,” Richardson said. “It’s no longer, ‘we are forever mask-free.’... During these times when illnesses go up, it’s good to get in the habit of putting on a mask.”


Medical experts attributed the winter spike in respiratory illness to a number of causes. As temperatures drop, people are more likely to spend more time indoors, where viruses spread more easily. The holiday season typically leads to higher case counts, as disease spreads through travel and indoor group gatherings, which may be occurring more frequently. People are also masking less, doctors say, and growing increasingly lax with other precautions like vaccinations.

While influenza and RSV are seasonal viruses, starting in fall and peaking in winter, much less is known about the sporadic patterns of COVID-19 variants, which have seen upticks in both summer and winter since the virus’s onset in 2020.

Benjy Renton, a research associate at Brown University’s School of Public Health, said recent Massachusetts waste water data indicate high levels of COVID-19 in the state, reflecting national trends, with the second-highest level of coronavirus in Boston-area waste water since the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalization rates are also increasing, Renton said, although waste water numbers don’t always translate directly to cases and infections.

Massachusetts reported just under 6,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 52 confirmed deaths in the week from Dec. 24-Dec. 30, adding to the total tallies of nearly 60,000 reported cases and more than 500 deaths due to COVID throughout this season. And these counts are likely underestimates due to lack of testing, said Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians.


John Freeman, 67, said it seems like some people act as if COVID-19 has dissipated entirely. But Freeman, who is retired, is keenly aware that the virus is still around; he had to cancel his family Christmas plans after testing positive last month. Although his symptoms were much milder than the first time he had COVID-19 in 2022, he didn’t want to spread it to his family members, including his 98-year-old father-in-law.

“I think in general, people are tired of it and wish it would go away, and in some cases, have just decided in their mind, ‘it has gone away, I don’t care,’” Freeman said. “I don’t count myself in that category.”

Gips, who has now returned to full health, has recently started masking again, a precaution she feels is necessary, although she noticed that hardly anyone else does.

“I was so happy to give up my mask, as I think we all were,” she said. “But now it’s really just preventative. ... It’s so easy to pass all these things along, so I think we all need to be really careful.”

Dr. Barbara Spivak, a Watertown primary care physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, agreed. She said the best ways to prevent the spread of illness go back to the basics — in addition to masking up, she advised proper handwashing and staying home when sick.


But most important, doctors said, is to get vaccinated.

“I would say the number one thing to improve things [and] help the community is to get vaccinated for COVID-19, flu, and RSV — and it’s not too late,” said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, a Boston Medical Center infectious diseases physician. “They’re actually meant to prevent severe disease. If you get vaccinated and don’t have to be hospitalized, that’s a win.”

Assoumou said that flu vaccination rates in Massachusetts are not up to par with what medical professionals would hope. She also encouraged adults 60 years and older to seek the RSV vaccine, an “exciting” development approved by the FDA and recommended by the CDC last fall.

For Kweisi Stanley, 27, a dental student at Tufts University, keeping up with vaccinations makes all the difference in staying healthy.

After he spent time unmasked and indoors with family over the holidays, he said everyone else at the gathering came down with flu-like symptoms except for him. He attributed his narrow escape from illness to his recent flu vaccination and COVID-19 booster.

“Being around gatherings is fine, but [while] taking proper precautions,” Stanley said.

Assoumou also encouraged testing early for COVID-19 and checking in with a healthcare provider about Paxlovid, an antiviral medication that can mitigate severe illness. While some patients have expressed concern about Paxlovid rebound — the recurrence of COVID-19 symptoms, seemingly after taking the medication — a recent CDC study found no association between Paxlovid treatment and rebound, and attributed recurrent symptoms to the virus’s natural progression rather than the medication itself.


Miotto also emphasized the importance of utilizing the myriad tools and resources available for illness prevention.

“There’s that responsibility that we can share,” Miotto said. “I don’t think we should think of it as a burden, I think we should think of it as an opportunity to keep our homes and our workplaces safe, and keeping vulnerable people from being hospitalized.”

Madeline Khaw can be reached at maddie.khaw@globe.com. Follow her @maddiekhaw.