The gist: Health care workers â€œcould choose not to wearâ€ masks â€œwhen they are in well-defined areas that are restricted from patient access,â€ like staff meeting rooms. When COVID-19 levels are â€œnot highâ€ in the community, â€œhealth care facilities could choose not to requireâ€ universal masking. All that said, masking â€œremains recommendedâ€ for people in health care settings when:
- COVID-19 levels in the community are high. (In this case, masks are recommended for everyone.)
- Someone has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 or other respiratory infection.
- Someone had close contact or a â€œhigher-riskâ€ exposure to someone with COVID-19.
- Someone works in a facility that is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.
So, in a nutshell, you may actually see the lower half of your doctorâ€™s or nurseâ€™s face, depending on your areaâ€™s specific COVID situation. But if youâ€™ve found comfort in feeling some level of community protection at your doctorâ€™s office, itâ€™s understandable to find this news a little unsettling.
Soâ€¦why relax the masking guidance in health care settings now?
The CDC noted that â€œupdates were made to reflect the high levels of vaccine- and infection-induced immunity and the availability of effective [COVID] treatments and prevention tools.â€ But itâ€™s interesting timing, given that prominent world leaders recently implied that the pandemic is â€œoverâ€ or nearing its â€œendâ€â€”even though hundreds of people, on average, are still dying of COVID each day, and an estimated one in five people who get infected face a long COVID diagnosis, according to the CDC.
The timing is also a little â€œcuriousâ€ because weâ€™re headed into the thick of cold and flu seasonâ€”a period when COVID-19 cases also tend to spike, William Schaffner, MD, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, tells ishonest. â€œThe masks also help prevent influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections,â€ he points out. Thatâ€™s why he anticipates that, when it comes to masking, â€œsome medical centers are still going to remain a little more conservative in the foreseeable future.â€
Itâ€™s important to note this is a recommendation many doctors arenâ€™t thrilled about.
Remember: This is just guidance for health care workersâ€”not rules that are set in stone. Itâ€™s likely that most medical facilities will implement their own masking policies or choose to follow state-level masking guidance.
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Either way, many experts arenâ€™t happy about the CDCâ€™s shift. â€œDoctors and other health care workers have an obligation to keep patients safe,â€ Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MPH, the dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey, tells ishonest. â€œWeâ€™re talking about patients potentially being in waiting rooms with people whose immune and vaccination status we donâ€™t know.â€
Amesh A. Adalja, MD, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees; he says the issue comes down to â€œpreventing transmission of respiratory viruses from health care workers to patients.â€
Plus, some experts argue that if any place should keep universal face mask requirements in check, itâ€™s health care settings. â€œThis is where people go when theyâ€™re not sure if theyâ€™re sickâ€”and where people go to feel better, not worse,â€ Jeremy Faust, MD, an emergency physician at Brigham and Womenâ€™s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, tells ishonest. â€œFor people like me who work in health care, weâ€™ve got to look at ourselves and say, â€˜Have we been spreading all kinds of viruses over the years? Not just COVID, but the flu and other respiratory pathogens?â€™ I think we have to say that we were.â€ Because of this, Dr. Faust stresses health care settings are â€œthe last place Iâ€™d like to see mask mandates go away.â€
So who will still mask up in health care settings?
It really depends on your doctors office. Health care providers who work with high-risk patients, like pediatricians, cardiologists, endocrinologists, and oncologists, are more likely to keep stricter masking policies in place, Dr. Schaffner says. If youâ€™re not sure what to expect before your next appointment, definitely give the office a call beforehand so youâ€™re up to date on any policy changes and able to ask questions.
Then, all you can do is focus on what is in your control before, during, and after your appointmentâ€”which may include investing in a high-quality N95 mask if you havenâ€™t already, as well as practicing other precautions like keeping your hands away from your face, washing or sanitizing your hands frequently, and trying to keep your distance from people who show potential signs of illness (like coughing or sneezing).
â€œMasks do provide protection against COVID, RSV, and influenza,â€ Dr. Schaffner says. So, whether youâ€™re immunocompromised or generally healthy and boosted, it certainly doesnâ€™t hurt to wear one in public, especially at the doctorâ€™s office. After all, the importance of taking care of each otherâ€”and the simple steps we can take to do thatâ€”shouldnâ€™t be a lesson we forget so soon.
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