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Altered Masking Strategies in Healthcare Amid Rising Respiratory Illness Metrics

As the peak season for ailments such as COVID-19 and influenza sets in, Milton sees its healthcare facilities adopting varied approaches towards masking for workers, patients, and visitors. Key institutions in the region standing behind their masking requirement for staff entail Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton, both under the umbrella of Beth Israel Lahey Health. Contrastingly, South Shore Health, owning South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, has not imposed a similar mandate.

Beth Israel Lahey Health has been keenly monitoring the progress of respiratory viruses since the termination of the state’s COVID-19 public health emergency in May. As explained by Sharon Wright, Chief Infection Prevention Officer, the ensuing metrics have been critical for the determination of preventive actions including masking provisions. As a consequence of discernable shifts in the metrics, masking was made mandatory for all healthcare personnel attending to patients as of December 18. Nevertheless, the requirement has not been extended to patients or visitors, although their masking is greatly advocated. The monitoring of the metrics will persist to facilitate swift modifications to the policy if deemed necessary.

In contrast, South Shore Health has, thus far, refrained from altering its masking guidelines, even amidst fluctuating patterns of some respiratory infections. The health system currently allows optional masking for patients, visitors, and staff barring particular clinical situations and areas dedicated to cancer care. While masks are readily available in their facilities, the choice to use them is left to the individuals.

Massachusetts’ stance on healthcare protocols has diverged from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who waived masking obligations for healthcare settings in 2022. Instead, the state upheld the mandate for healthcare institutions until May 2023. Consequently, numerous healthcare facilities terminated their masking prerequisites for visitors and patients. Yet, Mass. General Brigham requires its patient-tending staff to wear masks, and in December, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute reinstated its masking requirement.

CDC data reveals that over two dozen states report ‘high’ or ‘very high’ respiratory illness activity – Massachusetts included. This is gauged primarily by outpatient and emergency visits for respiratory concerns like a sore throat, fever, or cough. Last fall, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health introduced an enhanced dashboard for the tracking of developments in COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial syndrome, or RSV. Intriguingly, near the end of 2022, approximately 18 percent of Massachusetts’s emergency department visits cited sharp respiratory disease or general respiratory signs as the reason. Furthermore, about 18 percent of the hospital visits in Plymouth County and 19 percent in Norfolk County were attributed to acute respiratory conditions.

Between December 24 and 30, Massachusetts reported over 4,790 fresh confirmed COVID cases and 44 deaths. Similarly, roughly 3.5 percent of emergency visits statewide were due to COVID-19.


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