With both COVID-19 and other respiratory virus rates up, nearly all the major hospital groups in Massachusetts are bringing back mask requirements for doctors and staff, and in some cases for patients and visitors as well.
Beth Israel Lahey, Boston Medical Center and Dana Farber have already reimposed requirements. Mass General Brigham and UMass Memorial plan to require masking starting Jan. 2, followed by Tufts Medicine on Jan. 3.
Several of the health institutions said they’ve been closely tracking data — including wastewater measurements, hospitalizations and emergency room visits — ready to make the mask changes.
COVID-19 cases are up, and the state’s data measuring COVID detected in wastewater — used to track trends of the number of people with the illness — has shown a spike since Thanksgiving. That measurement is considered a good early warning sign of increases since the virus can show up in wastewater as much as a week before positive test results do.
But while most people associate masking with COVID-19, hospitals say the rise in a range of respiratory viruses, like RSV and various strains of influenza, is also behind the call to mask up. And while using masks to prevent infectious disease transmission is not a new concept, experts consider them a public health lesson from the pandemic.
“We have a tool that is not just specific to COVID, and these respiratory viruses do on their own have a significant level of morbidity, mortality, missed days from work,” said Dr. Cassandra Pierre, infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center. “We've had this understanding from COVID that we can protect our health care workers, our patients and our staff by using the same mask mandates that were helpful during the pandemic.”
At Mass General Brigham facilities, patients and visitors are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, but they are still optional for those groups at most locations.
Boston Medical Center, meanwhile, is already requiring patients and visitors in most settings to wear a mask. Pierre said that decision was especially important given the vulnerable and minority population at Boston Medical Center who’ve “typically borne the brunt” of COVID-19 and other respiratory complications.
Dana Farber Cancer Institute reimposed mask mandates for patient-facing staff as well as patients and visitors last week.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in both the incidents of COVID, influenza and of RSV,” said Anne Gross, chief nursing officer at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Those are very serious illnesses for people at risk, in particular the elderly and people like our cancer patients.”
But Gross also said anyone heading into crowded places should consider masking again.
“These illnesses are transmitted in the air,” said Gross. “When you are going to places where there are a lot of people, it just makes sense to minimize your risk.”