Masks aren’t just for COVID-19: 2020 Valley fever decrease could be connected as well

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — For months the CDC has been stressing the importance of face coverings in the fight against COVID-19. Some states are seeing evidence that mask wearing may also have limited the impact of the seasonal flu this past winter.

Which raises a question with particular relevance in Kern County: Could mask wearing also have helped slow the recent steady acceleration of valley fever cases?

Several studies have confirmed what many have intuitively concluded about face masks — they help protect against the spread of a virus that has killed more than a half-million Americans over the past 14 months. But could masks have additional health benefits right here in Kern County? Such as … fewer cases of valley fever? At this point, it’s pure speculation, but …. Maybe.

We know this: Kern County had a 41 percent decrease in valley fever cases from 2019 when essentially no one was wearing masks, to 2020, when, for the latter nine months of the year a substantial percentage of the population was wearing masks — and/or was significantly curtailing social interaction.

Valley fever — a debilitating and sometimes deadly ailment caused by an airborne fungus common in the southern Central Valley and southwestern United States — had been steadily gaining traction here since 2014. That year Kern County had 106 cases per 100,000 population. By 2019, Kern had a whopping 367 cases per 100,000 — a gain of 260 percent over six years. 

2021 looks to be even better than 2020 in terms of limiting valley fever. So far in 2021, we’re on track for a further decrease of 10 percent.

Valley fever cases ebb and flow based on a number of environmental variables — but could mask wearing — or the general lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic — be one of them?

Dr. Royce Johnson, chief of Infectious Disease at Kern Medical, and medical director at the Valley Fever Institute, says it’s possible.

“Staying indoors and wearing masks probably both could have an effect on the (valley fever) numbers,” Johnson said. “Now, whether that is in fact what affected the numbers, I can’t tell you.”

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s best known epidemiologist, said mask wearing might be beneficial even after the pandemic goes away because it could help minimize the impact of the seasonal flu.

Might it also have benefits for those at high risk of serious complications from valley fever? Maybe so.

The decline in valley fever cases in Kern County last year could have as much to do with cutbacks in jobs where valley fever risk is highest — such as construction and the oilfields. It could stem from the fact that new cases simply weren’t diagnosed because people stayed away from doctors’ offices. Most likely it was a combination of all of those things — including those all too familiar pieces of cloth.

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