UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital in Madison, Wisconsin announced this week that it is reinstating a universal masking requirement for all staff, patients and visitors, in response to a spike in influenza, RSV and COVID-19 cases.
Rising Respiratory Virus Levels Prompt Policy Change
According to UnityPoint Health spokesperson Leah Huibregtse, the decision was driven by increasing rates of respiratory illnesses in the community. She cited a level of flu cases that is “dramatically higher for this time of year” along with an early surge in RSV cases. Additionally, COVID-19 hospitalizations at UnityPoint Health-Meriter have quadrupled in recent weeks.
“The number of patients we are seeing with respiratory illnesses is far higher than a typical year and continues to grow quickly. We hope taking this measure now will help limit further spread,” Huibregtse said.
Other hospital systems in Wisconsin and across the country are seeing similar trends and have also reinstituted masking policies, including UW Health in Madison as well as Providence Health and MultiCare Health System facilities in Washington state.
Details of New Masking Requirement
The reinstatement of universal masking took effect on Monday, December 12th. All staff, patients and visitors age 2 and up are required to wear a medical-grade surgical mask throughout UnityPoint Health-Meriter facilities.
This requirement applies in all clinical areas as well as public spaces like cafeterias, gift shops and waiting areas. Individuals may remove masks in private offices or when alone in patient rooms. N95 respirators can be used as an acceptable alternative to surgical masks.
There are some exceptions to the policy for patients undergoing procedures that require access to the nose/mouth area or those who cannot medically tolerate mask-wearing. In those cases, clinical teams will provide specialized care plans.
|All UnityPoint Health-Meriter clinical areas and public spaces
|Staff, patients and visitors aged 2+
|Must wear medical-grade surgical mask
|Private offices, private patient rooms when alone
|Staff, patients and visitors
|Procedural/treatment areas requiring nose/mouth access, patients unable to tolerate masks
|Clinical teams provide specialized care plans
Decision Aligned With Latest Public Health Guidance
While US COVID cases have declined overall since summer 2022 highs, the last few weeks reflect an upward trend heading into the winter virus season. The CDC recently adjusted its COVID-19 Community Levels map to show more counties, including Dane County, with “high” levels where masking is recommended.
The latest public health guidance emphasizes that consistently wearing high-quality masks in healthcare and congregate settings is an important tool for reducing widespread transmission of respiratory illnesses – especially critical when managing simultaneous surges of flu, RSV and COVID.
“We are committed to protecting our vulnerable patients and workforce during this virus surge. Requiring medical-grade masks is a proven strategy to reduce exposure and keep our staff healthy to care for the community,” said UnityPoint Health-Meriter’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Daniel Shirley.
What Happens Next
UnityPoint Health leaders say the masking rules will remain in place temporarily during this high volume respiratory virus period, to be re-evaluated on an ongoing basis. They encourage community members to help limit the spread of flu, RSV and COVID by getting vaccinated, wearing masks in public indoor spaces, and staying home when sick.
As the situation continues unfolding, more healthcare systems may opt to follow suit with masking requirements, especially pediatric facilities concerned about RSV spread. With holiday travel and gatherings on the horizon, cases are expected to rise further before peaking.
UnityPoint’s Huibregtse summarized, “We are closely tracking illness trends and how they impact hospital capacity and care teams. Our teams are working tirelessly to care for more sick patients than typical. We appreciate the community’s support and flexibility as we adjust to manage this influx.”
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