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Some hospitals reinstate mask requirements amid COVID surge

As COVID-19 and other respiratory infections surge across the country, some large health systems are reinstating mask requirements to stop the spread of infections.

This week, Mass General Brigham, Massachusetts’ largest health system, said it would require mask wearing for health care personnel who interact directly with patients in clinical care settings starting Jan. 2.

Patients and visitors will be “strongly encouraged” to wear a facility-issued mask. Masks will not be required for staff in hallways and common areas.

The health system said in a statement that its policy is based on the percentage of patients presenting to emergency departments or outpatient clinics with symptoms of respiratory illness.

Once this figure exceeded 2.85 percent for two consecutive weeks, the masking mandate came into effect. It will end when the level falls below 2.85 percent for a week.

Most hospitals relaxed or eliminated their masking requirements last spring, after the federal government ended the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Another major Boston hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, began requiring masks for patients and staff on December 18. The hospital said the policy would be in place for the “foreseeable future.”

The hospital said there is no single data point used by leaders to gauge when the requirement will end.

“We check a number of different data, including rates of influenza-like illness, staff absenteeism, and emergency room visits and hospitalizations caused by respiratory viruses. We will lift the mask requirement when these data points remain consistently lower,” the hospital said on its website.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the region’s largest rehabilitation hospital requires masks for all staff and admitted patients, but not for visitors or outpatient areas.

In a message to staff, Medstar National Rehabilitation Hospital said the move was to protect staff as there has been an increase in positive COVID tests on admission. As a result, there has been an increase in patient exposure to staff members.

And in Wisconsin, UW Health recently began requiring masks again in medical clinics, outpatient care and waiting rooms.

The new requirements come as the JN.1 variant has become the most prevalent strain of the virus in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant accounted for 44 percent of COVID-19 infections nationwide in mid-December, up from about 7 percent in late November.

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