For the first time in three years, customers at Cincinnati-area hospitals are no longer required to wear masks when visiting loved ones.
The policy changes recently went into effect on different days in the region’s six major health systems, but came in response to falling COVID-19 rates, rising immunity and the decline in other respiratory illnesses, hospital officials confirmed.
Health systems all changed policies requiring customers to wear masks ahead of President Joe Biden’s legislation on Monday that ended the national emergency for COVID-19. A separate public health emergency is also expected to end on May 11.
Colleges across the United States also ended vaccine requirements for students at various times from last year, with some as recent as last month.
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Mandates have been scrapped in hospitals following steady declines in infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients. According to the latest update from the Health Collaborative’s Situational Dashboard, which is updated weekly, the Cincinnati area currently has 54 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. At the start of 2022, just over a year ago, there were more than 1,000. The region currently has 11 COVID-positive patients in intensive care and five on ventilators.
“Overall, the data looks very stable, continuing a slow and steady decline, which is fantastic,” said Tiffany Mattingly, vice president of clinical strategies for the Health Collaborative, the umbrella group of 40 hospitals in the region. “Our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed from a COVID or flu perspective right now, so we’re in really good shape there.”
Cincinnati hospitals turn to ‘optional’ mask wearing
Bon Secours Mercy Health was the first system to impose a requirement last September when it changed its policy from a mandate to guidelines that “strongly recommended” masks in facilities, including “contact areas.” patient”.
TriHealth then removed its mandate for masks in late January and removed visiting restrictions except for “visitors of COVID patients and visitors to maternity/neonatal intensive care units).”
In March, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center made the decision to make masking optional for “most staff and visitors in public areas,” but maintained requirements in certain areas of the medical center and for people with certain medical conditions. The health system also announced that it would “probably” return to a temporary mask mandate during flu season.
“Because of everything we’ve learned about how masks help limit the spread of certain illnesses, Cincinnati Children’s will likely revert to a required masking practice during flu/respiratory illness season – using data on the prevalence and spread of the disease to inform this decision,” the organization said in a statement.
St. Elizabeth Healthcare and UC Health changed their policies to make masks for visitors and patients optional on April 3. Masks are still needed at UC Health’s Drake Center, its neonatal intensive care unit, and bone marrow transplant units and clinics.
St. Elizabeth will also allow unlimited inpatient visitors during established visiting hours (8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week), while COVID-19 positive patients may receive two visitors per day.
Christ Hospital Health Network updated its policy to make masks optional on April 5. The change is “due to a significant drop in COVID-19 transmission and overall positivity rates,” according to Christ’s website.
“Patients and families who feel more comfortable wearing a mask are encouraged to do so,” the website says. “We will continue to evaluate any new information presented by the CDC and other scientific sources and make changes to the policy as appropriate.”
Data shows decline in infections and hospitalizations
Cincinnati isn’t alone in removing mask mandates in recent weeks. Hospitals across the United States began rolling back the unprecedented policy after Biden announced a planned date to end the national emergency. The emergency ordinance allowed the government to take drastic measures to fight the virus.
Hospitals began requiring visitors to wear masks after COVID-19 began to take shape in early 2020. While visitor restrictions gradually eased, mask mandates remained as a number of strains different types of the virus have caused waves of infections.
COVID infections, along with other respiratory illnesses, have at times throughout the pandemic strained the system, causing an overflow of patients in hospitals. But hospital levels rebounded after a strong flu and the spread of RSV a few months ago, Mattingly said. The outlook for hospitals going forward remains stable even with remaining labor shortages as the pandemic becomes more rampant, she said.
“All I’ve heard at this point is that those days of significant surges are hopefully behind us,” Mattingly said.