Several major hospital systems across the United States have reinstated mask requirements for staff and visitors in recent weeks due to surging COVID-19 cases driven by new Omicron subvariants. The return of mandates comes nearly three years into the pandemic and signals a worrying winter spike reminiscent of prior waves.
COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rising Sharply
After COVID-19 metrics declined substantially from summer peaks, cases and hospitalizations started increasing again in late November. The early Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 drove waves last summer, but new variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are now responsible for a growing proportion of U.S. cases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new COVID-19 hospital admissions reached 4,800 per day in mid-December – more than double the rate in early November. Total hospitalized patients now exceed 40,000 nationwide for the first time since September.
With immunity waning from vaccination and prior infection, the surging variants have sparked fresh concerns about overwhelmed hospitals. “We had hoped we would be in a endemic phase, but it is clear that is not the case,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, CEO of Massachusetts-based UMass Memorial Health. “The pandemic is not over.”
Major Hospital Operators Reinstate Masking Policies
In response to higher admissions and staff shortages, numerous healthcare providers have newly required masks:
Hospitals and Health Systems Requiring Masks Again
|Mask Policy Details
|UMass Memorial Health
|All staff must wear surgical masks; visitors strongly encouraged
|N95 or greater masks for staff
|Surgical masks required for staff and visitors
UMass Memorial announced on December 31st that employees must resume wearing masks at all times to curb COVID-19, flu and RSV spread. The policy applies to over 17,000 staff across central Massachusetts. CNE Health mandated N95 or better respirators for employees in Rhode Island hospitals on December 28th. Baystate Health was among over a half dozen Massachusetts providers to restore universal masking policies for staff and visitors by year’s end.
Several major systems in Illinois also newly require masks again, including Northwestern Medicine, Rush University Medical Center and Advocate Aurora Health. New mandates took effect at various hospitals across California last week as well, including Cedars-Sinai, UCLA Health and Kaiser Permanente Southern California. Mask usage had only recently become optional at most facilities over the past year before these renewed actions.
Health Experts Support New Precautions Amid Variant Threat
Public health authorities endorse the return of masks and other measures to combat the latest COVID-19 surge. “The variants out there are very transmissible, and we are seeing more people get infected,” said Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis. The county mandated masks at all healthcare facilities starting January 1st.
CDC guidelines still recommend universal masking for areas with “high” or “medium” COVID-19 community levels. Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said earlier this month that Americans should voluntarily mask up again amid elevated transmission.
Hospital leaders say employee health is also at stake beyond managing patient influxes. “We need to protect our workforce so we can care for all in need, not just during this surge but also for the long run,” said Kaiser Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Parodi. Studies continue to show masks cut down staff infections when worn consistently in healthcare settings.
Prior Mandates Lifted as Pandemic Fatigue Set In
Most hospitals had retained extensive COVID-19 precautions like masking over the past three years. But frustration and policy misalignment led systems nationwide to relax or eliminate requirements, often against experts’ guidance.
Before the new omicron spike, hospitals from East Coast academic medical centers to West Coast integrated delivery networks had made masks optional over the past six months. Some cited declining community spread and desire for “normalcy” after long pandemic battles. Others noted confusion from conflicting state and local rules.
In Massachusetts, Partners HealthCare dropped universal masking in June 2022 as the state ended emergency measures. But neighboring Rhode Island still mandated masks in all healthcare facilities at the time, putting major operator CNE Health at odds with updated guidance. Most hospitals continued recommending mask-wearing even if not required. But compliance proved difficult without mandates, concerning infection control teams.
Uncertain Future Path of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The new mask mandates symbolize an uncertain future course as COVID-19 approaches a fourth year disrupting healthcare and society at large. Medical experts are debating to what extent the virus should now be handled like other endemic respiratory diseases versus treated as an ongoing emergency.
“This was triggered from an increase in cases mirroring what we see seasonally with other viruses,” said Dr. Jim Skogsbergh, Advocate Health CEO, on restoring the system’s mask requirement in December. But other officials like Los Angeles’ Dr. Davis continue warning that contagious new variants necessitate COVID-specific containment measures.
Over the winter months, health systems brace for a potential “tripledemic” with COVID-19, influenza and RSV concurrently stressing capacity. Whether mask mandates expand beyond hospitals and into public spaces like earlier in the pandemic remains to be seen. For now, healthcare workers again face grueling months in uncomfortable respirators committed to the pandemic fight.
Conclusion: Masking Returns But Pandemic Fatigue Persists
Major hospitals across multiple states are mandating masks once more for staff and visitors amid another COVID-19 admission surge driven by immunity-evading variants. The reversals follow updated CDC guidance and aim to curb virus spread impacting patients and workers alike.
But while systems from Rhode Island to California have reinstated near-universal masking policies, compliance issues continue as pandemic frustrations persist years in. Healthcare experts nationwide are weighing shifting perspectives balancing virus containment with restored normalcy and individual choice. Renewed masking aims to flatten a discouraging winter peak, but challenges likely lie ahead determining sustainable policy beyond this latest pandemic wave.
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