Power of suggestion and wishful thinking (shutdowns and masks preventing the common cold)

Friends and neighbors in Massachusetts who were Shutdown and Mask Karens (i.e., nearly all of my friends and neighbors who weren’t pilots, doctors, or medical school professors!) reported that, in their personal experience, the shutdowns and masks had beaten the common cold. A full year of school closure (Boston Public) and more than a year of mask orders from the energetic governor had shown the rhinovirus who was boss. Yes, adults were still meeting at bars, on Tinder, and in marijuana and liquor stores (“essential”), but a cold is no match for a full glass of vodka combined with healing marijuana smoke.

Let’s check in with #Science… “Kids’ Colds Didn’t Take a Break During the Pandemic” (MedPage Today, October 1, 2021):

As cases of influenza and other respiratory viruses plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic for kids and adults alike, rhinovirus and enterovirus continued to infect children at typical rates, a multicenter study suggested.

In a surveillance analysis involving more than 35,000 children who presented to emergency departments or were hospitalized for acute respiratory illness, 29.6% tested positive for enterovirus or rhinovirus in the March 2020 to January 2021 season, similar to rates for two prior seasons (30.4% for 2019-2020 and 29.0% for 2017-2018), reported Danielle Rankin, MPH, CIC, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

And the combined positivity rate of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and other respiratory viruses (39.5%) was significantly lower in 2020-2021 compared to each of the prior three seasons (P<0.001):

  • 2019-2020: 75.4%
  • 2018-2019: 71.3%
  • 2017-2018: 69.4%

“It has been previously shown that mitigation measures, like mask wearing or social distancing, which were introduced to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, also limited the spread of influenza, RSV, and some other respiratory viruses,” Rankin said in a press release. “This study showed rhinovirus/enterovirus slightly decreased in March 2020, but shortly after resumed and persisted.”

Could the confidence of my friends in Maskachusetts that the common cold had been vanquished be an example of wishful thinking/confirmation bias? Or do we think this research result is another example of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”? I personally have a tough time believing that shutting schools and chaining children to their TVs and computers indoors for a year didn’t reduce transmission of the common cold. One can argue whether it makes sense to deny children an education in order to protect them from a virus that kills 82-year-olds, but I would have been confident in predicting that denying children an education would reduce their likelihood of catching a cold. (On the third hand, we could argue that my shutdown- and mask-advocating friends and neighbors in MA were a non-representative sample. Nearly all were able to work from home, for example, and nearly all lived in spacious suburban houses (see The social justice of coronashutdowns for the shutdown/mask views of a guy who lives in 8,000 square feet).)

Photos from the tiny strip mall at the heart of our former suburb, August 2021, reminding folks that COVID-19 is deadly, but so are leaf blowers (“toxic tornados” [sic]):

5 thoughts on “Power of suggestion and wishful thinking (shutdowns and masks preventing the common cold)

  1. Actually my personal experience is that I had no respiratory infection since covid, whereas before I had one every winter. But it’s not the masks that prevented this but another aspect: I live in France. Here, before Corona, every man is supposed to shake hands with every male colleague in the morning with whom he shares the (huge open-)office. Also, he is supposed to “kiss” every female colleague. I’ve put “kiss” in quotes because it’s a special kind of kiss, we touch cheeks and we kiss the air. Twice, once for each cheek. (There are even regional variants: in the North people touch the right cheeks first, turning their heads to the left, in the South it’s the left cheek first, so when a Northerner meets a Southerner they risk meeting mid-air and plant the kiss on their lips instead of kissing the air.) I haven’t performed those daily rituals since February 2020, I used to shake about 15 hand daily. It guaranteed a cold per winter, sometimes two.

    Just today I’ve seen an article in a German newpaper reporting that doctors are alarmed over a recent rise of infections with the respiratory syncytial virus in babies. Normally it is seasonal and should happen in the winter.

  2. This post, and more accurately MedPage Today, depresses me to an almost unimaginable extent. I just keep seeing an almost unimaginable amount of money disappearing into an infinite abyss.

  3. Here in Germany, we have the weird situation that many children’s hospitals and their ICUs are at full capacity. Not because of Covid-19, but because of RSV infections. It feels like everybody has a cold here right now. Unfortunately RSV can be very dangerous for kids under the age of 3, that’s why hospitals are full.
    All this is generally considered a side-effect of last year’s lockdown. Immunity from these types of infections has waned.

    • Getting a cold or two every year or two is by far the most healthy thing you can do for your immune system.

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