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May 23, 2024

Mask Mandates Return to Some Hospitals as COVID-19, Flu Cases Surge

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Jan 14, 2024

Several hospital systems across the United States have reinstated mask requirements in recent days amid rising COVID-19 cases and a severe flu season. The moves mark a shift from months of looser guidelines, even as health experts debate whether broader mask mandates are necessary.

Johns Hopkins Leads Push in Maryland and DC Area

Johns Hopkins Medicine announced last week that it would again require staff, patients and visitors to wear face coverings at all of its hospitals and clinics in Maryland starting January 16.

The policy applies to all Johns Hopkins-owned health care facilities, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Howard County General Hospital and Suburban Hospital. Masks must be worn in clinical areas including emergency departments, outpatient clinics, infusion centers, transport vehicles and common areas.

Johns Hopkins cited “the recentmarked rise”in COVID-19 cases both nationallyand in Marylandover the past two weeks. It also pointed to high rates of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections straining hospital capacity.

Key Statistics Behind Decision

  • Maryland reported over 3,000 new COVID-19 cases on January 7, the highest single-day total since February 2022.
  • The CDC estimates there have been at least 13 million flu illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations and 7,300 deaths this season.
  • RSV cases are 10 times higher than normal for this time of year.

“We believe reinstating a mask mandate is an important step to reduce the opportunity for exposures among vulnerable patient populations,” Johns Hopkins said in a statement.

The University of Maryland Medical System quickly followed suit, announcing it too would require universal masking at all 13 system hospitals and other facilities in the state.

Other regional health systems like MedStar Health have held off on blanket mandates for now, instead strongly recommending mask usage.

Penn Medicine Reinstates Policy in Pennsylvania

Citing “the recent, rapid rise in flu and COVID-19 cases,” Penn Medicine reinstated a system-wide mask mandate on January 9 at hospitals and clinics in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

All employees, patients and visitors are required to mask regardless of vaccination status. The policy applies at all Penn Medicine hospitals including Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Hospital and Princeton Medical Center.

Penn said it is tracking a “significant increase” in ED visits and hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses including COVID, flu and RSV:

  • Flu-related ED visits jumped 50% over the past week
  • COVID-related admissions doubled over the past two weeks
  • About 15% of pediatric hospital beds are filled with RSV patients

“Requiring masks will help reduce risk and maintain a safe care environment. We continue to monitor this situation closely,” said Chief Clinical Officer Patrick Brennan.

Mandates Expanding Nationwide

Hospitals across the country are grappling with the triple threat of spiking COVID-19, flu and RSV cases. Some are choosing to reinstate mask mandates that were lifted last year, though there is no consensus yet on a broader return to universal masking policies.

On January 5, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett issued an advisory recommending but not requiring masks in all healthcare facilities. By January 8, New York City public hospitals run by NYC Health + Hospitals enacted an updated mask mandate citing “a rapid increase in respiratory viral infections.”

Other hospital systems now requiring universal masking include:

  • Ochsner Health (Louisiana)
  • Beebe Healthcare (Delaware)
  • Virtua Health (New Jersey)
  • Hartford Healthcare (Connecticut)
  • UCLA Health (California)
  • UW Medicine (Washington)

Meanwhile, some areas such as Florida have banned mask mandates even as the state suffers extremely high COVID-19 hospitalization rates.

The renewed mask requirements have drawn mixed reactions. Some patients and healthcare workers have welcomed the extra precaution during a perilous respiratory virus season. But mandates have also revived debates about personal liberty and mixed messaging on COVID-19 policy.

What Comes Next?

It remains unclear if more geographical areas will reimplement broad indoor mask mandates as they did earlier in the pandemic. For now, most new policies are limited to healthcare facilities already struggling with capacity issues.

Many public health experts argue that bringing back universal mask rules could help slow virus spread.

“We know that masking works. We should be willing to use it judiciously to help control winter respiratory virus surge,” tweeted Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Others counter that mandates should not be imposed lightly given pandemic fatigue and the availability of vaccines and treatments.

“Americans have lost patience with sweeping edicts from public health agencies,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote last week. “The only mandate likely to work is personalized advice from doctors and nurses trusted by patients.”

All eyes will be on updated case statistics over the next several weeks. CDC models predict flu activity will keep increasing through January and February. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations could rise following recent holiday gatherings.

If trends continue, more cities and states may have to reassess masking policies. For now, health systems remain on high alert bracing for a potential “tripledemic” that could overwhelm hospitals nationwide.

Hospital System Mask Policies

Hospital System Locations Policy Details
Johns Hopkins Medicine Maryland Required for all staff, patients and visitors in clinical areas
University of Maryland Medical System Maryland Required for all staff, patients and visitors
Penn Medicine PA, NJ Required for all staff, patients and visitors
Hartford Healthcare CT Required for all staff, patients and visitors
Oschner Health LA Required for all staff, patients and visitors
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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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