Hospitals in places across the United States have reimplemented mask mandates because of what officials say is an uptick in COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.
For example, the NYC Health + Hospitals—officially the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation that operates public hospitals and clinics in New York City—announced that mask mandates will be reimplemented at its hospitals.
“Due to an uptick in respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, flu, and RSV in our communities and our hospital, we must return to mandatory masking. Please wear a mask when you visit us!” the hospital operator wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, earlier this week.
The post showed a photo of staff members wearing masks.
A separate NYC Health + Hospitals post states that “mandatory masking” was reinstated at its Jacobi facility in the Bronx because of “the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities.”
While the hospital and other medical facilities have cited recent U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showing an increase in COVID-19 cases, historical data from the same agency show that the increase has been relatively small compared to previous years. As of Dec. 16, the agency data show that more than 25,000 people are currently hospitalised for COVID-19 across the United States, whereas on Dec. 16, 2022, more than 36,000 were hospitalised.
UMass Memorial Medical Centre in Worcester, Massachusetts, confirmed to local media that it would issue a monthlong mask requirement for its staff, effective Jan. 2. Patients and visitors won’t be mandated to wear face coverings, however.
“These changes are expected to remain in effect for approximately one month, at which time they will be reevaluated based on current trends,” a spokesperson for the hospital said in the statement.
“The health and wellbeing of our patients, visitors, and employees is our top priority.”
The Mass General Brigham Health System in Massachusetts also announced that it’s reinstating masking requirements because of COVID-19.
“Our masking policies are based on the current respiratory illness rates in our communities,” Mass General Brigham confirmed in a statement to local media on Dec. 28.
In Delaware, TidalHealth announced on Dec. 28 that it’s mandating masks for all hospital visitors in patients’ rooms. That rule was initiated in “an effort to protect the most vulnerable of our population from close contact with persons that may be contagious but not yet have symptoms,” according to the hospital.
Thousands of miles across the country, in Washington State, Kaiser Permanente confirmed to local media that staffers who work in person with patients have to wear masks. Kaiser spokeswoman Linnae Riesen told The Spokesman-Review that masks are required for its workers but that patients and visitors aren’t required to wear them.
“Masks are not required but are strongly recommended for patients and visitors who do not have respiratory symptoms and are visiting low-risk areas of our medical facilities,” Kaiser Permanente’s guidance reads, according to the media outlet.
Officials at Beacon Health System said Memorial Hospital and Elkhart General, located in South Bend, Indiana, are reimplementing masking requirements for visitors, patients, and staff, according to local reports. Earlier this month, several hospitals in Pittsburgh, hospitals in Boston, and UW Health hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin also implemented mask requirements to varying degrees.
Multiple California counties across the Bay Area region had already imposed a mask mandate for staff; it started in November and will run until the end of spring because of a predicted rise in respiratory illnesses.
The CDC last week posted an update stating that the new COVID-19 variant, JN.1, makes up nearly half of all U.S. cases. Two weeks ago, it amounted to about 15 percent to 29 percent of all cases.
JN.1 is continuing “to cause an increasing share of infections and is now the most widely circulating variant in the United States,” the agency stated, noting that the strain now accounts for about 39 percent to 50 percent of all COVID-19 cases.
It’s too early to tell whether JN.1 will cause an increase in infections or hospitalisations, according to the CDC. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) separately stated that JN.1 doesn’t appear to pose a high risk as compared with other variants, as it listed JN.1 as a “variant of interest.”
“The spread of this variant will unlikely increase the burden on national public health systems compared to other Omicron sublineages,” the WHO stated earlier in December. “However, countries approaching the winter season should be aware that, altogether, SARS-CoV-2 and co-circulating pathogens may exacerbate the respiratory disease burden.”
Symptoms of a JN.1 COVID-19 infection could include a cough, sore throat, fever, and headache, as well as muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, runny nose, brain fog, fatigue, muscle aches, and congestion, according to officials.
“As we observe the rise of the JN.1 variant, it’s important to note that while it may be spreading more widely, there is currently no significant evidence suggesting it is more severe or that it poses a substantial public health risk,” John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at the Boston Children’s Hospital, told ABC News last week.