Minnesota health systems are dropping masking requirements for patients, staff

Published 6:33 am Friday, April 7, 2023

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By Michelle Wiley, Minnesota Publci Radio News

Several Minnesota health care systems are relaxing their masking requirements in another move away from policies established at the height of the pandemic three years ago.

The latest to announce is Mayo Clinic, which announced in a statement earlier this week that its system would no longer require masks in “most patient care areas on Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System campuses” starting April 10. Masking will instead be voluntary, except in high-risk patient settings. In the statement, Mayo officials said they plan to notify high-risk, immunocompromised patients to wear a mask while at their facilities.

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Allina Health also plans to ease their masking rules at its facilities, starting April 18.

“These have been conversations that we’ve really continued to have throughout the pandemic,” said Mallory Koshiol, Allina Health’s VP of system safety and quality.

In October 2022, the health care system announced that staff could remove their masks in non-patient care areas, like break rooms and offices. Koshiol said this announcement is part of their “stepwise approach.”

“We do have metrics that we’ll continue to monitor ongoing and should [or] if we need to reinstate [the masking mandate] we certainly will,” she said. “Safety is our top priority. So we’ll continue to monitor and work to work to maintain that. And we know our staff are looking forward to seeing each other smiling and resuming some level of normalcy after many, many years of wearing masks all the time.”

Those metrics include occupational health among staff and community transmission rates. Koshiol said staff, patients and visitors can choose to mask, and patients and visitors can request that employees mask when providing care.

Officials at Hennepin Healthcare said they also plan to make changes to their masking policies. Starting April 11, masking by staff will continue in patient-facing areas, like exam rooms, therapy areas and front desks, but are no longer required in other places, like elevators, cafeterias and conference rooms.

Masking will be optional for patients and visitors, except in certain scenarios, the statement said.

While most people have stopped wearing masks in public, it’s generally been required in health care settings since the pandemic started three years ago.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in September 2022, says “[h]ealthcare facilities may choose to offer well-fitting facemasks as a source control option for visitors but should allow the use of a mask or respirator with higher-level protection that is not visibly soiled by people who chose that option based on their individual preference.”

But some providers say that health care is different and should be looked at differently.

“There’s a lot of people in hospitals that aren’t really there by their own choice,” said Dr. Jill Foster, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Masonic Children’s Hospital. She said they have a lot of high-risk patients who may not be protected from COVID the same way that many in the general population are.

“I think it makes it tricky because then we’re making the vulnerable patients be the ones who have to advocate for themselves rather than institutions advocating in advance for them by setting guidelines,” she said. “The benefit is that people can wear a mask themselves and feel fairly protected. But of course, both people wearing a mask is certainly much better.”

Other health care systems around the state have already changed their masking rules.

CentraCare, which has facilities across Minnesota, said their masking change also went into effect on April 2. The organization said that factors related to COVID-19 — including employee infection rates and the number of patients they were treating with the virus — came into play in the decision.

“While COVID-19 isn’t over, it’s changed drastically since it first started. The health impacts are less severe and mortality rates are much lower,” said Dr. George Morris, who led CentraCare’s COVID response, in a statement. “We still have some protocols in place for employee masking — and our patients should continue to mask if they have any respiratory symptoms. We will rely on closely monitored metrics to guide future decisions [sic] related to masking if our environment changes.”

Essentia Health, which has facilities in central Minnesota and in the Duluth area, eased masking restrictions on April 3. In their announcement, officials said this “does not apply to Essentia’s long-term care/nursing home facilities or assisted living facilities, which will continue to evaluate masking protocols separately. Hospice staff will follow the policies of the facilities they enter.”

Officials at Fairview Health Services said they’re discussing their masking policy, but did not have anything to announce at this time.