Leaves are changing colors and temperatures are dropping, but these sure signs of the season are no help for understanding where and when you should expect to still wear a mask as the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its third autumn.
On Sept. 23, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance around masking and COVID-19 screening in healthcare facilities, specifically:
- No longer recommending universal masking unless a facility is in an area of high COVID-19 transmission
- Not using vaccination status of healthcare workers to determine when to screen, quarantine or require “source control” (e.g., face masks or respirators)
- Leaving COVID-19 screening of asymptomatic workers to the discretion of organizations
- Continuing to recommend source control for people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 or other respiratory infection; close contact with someone who had COVID-19 in the past 10 days; lives or works in a facility experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak; or otherwise have masks recommended by public health authorities.
An Oct. 4, 2022, MGMA Stat poll found that a majority (57%) of medical group practices require masks for everyone, while:
- 32% report they do not require masks for anyone
- 6% report that only workers must mask
- 1% said that only patients must mask
- 4% noted “other.”
The poll had 871 applicable responses.
Practice leaders who responded to the poll and other MGMA members have shared a variety of mask and testing policy options they use, absent state or local mandates that require masking and/or testing:
- Masks in public areas, but optional elsewhere: Some outpatient clinics ask employees in common areas and/or working with patients to mask, but then making masks optional in personal work areas. When applied to patients, masks are required upon entry to the clinic, but then made optional once inside the exam room.
- Masks only for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients, as well as masking for employees working with sick-visit patients
- Mask requirements for unvaccinated workers and/or patients
- Mandatory testing of unvaccinated patients prior to procedure within the ambulatory surgery center (ASC), as well as masks required for everyone within the ASC
- Following CDC Community Transmission levels to determine requirements, with signage advising employees and patients of the current level:
- At low/green levels, masks are not required.
- At medium/yellow levels, masks are recommended.
- At high/red levels, masks are required for anyone entering the building.
Additionally, many practice leaders cited cold and flu season and the potential for a new surge in COVID-19 cases this autumn and winter as their rationale for maintaining mask requirements despite otherwise low case counts in their communities.
The state of public safety measures such as mask requirements is hard to define as of October 2022, as different industries and organizations take strikingly different approaches:
- Many major cruise operators, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, have dropped mask, vaccination and testing requirements.
- Some academic institutions, such as Rutgers University in New Jersey, are reinstating mask mandates for public indoor areas of their campuses.
- Other academic institutions are considering the level of “mask fatigue” among students and others in their decision-making around requirements throughout this fall and winter.
Despite the differing approaches to these policies, several infectious disease experts say that masks remain effective, especially given the seasonal illnesses impacting the country now.
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