SEATTLE — Some regional healthcare facilities across the Puget Sound region have committed, in a joint statement, to continue to require masking in acute and outpatient clinic settings in advance of the removal of the Secretary of Health mask order on April 3.
Masks will no longer be required in healthcare, long-term care, and correctional facilities in Washington state next week, the state's Department of Health (DOH) announced earlier this month. But in the joint statement, many of the region's major medical centers have committed to continuing the masking requirements.
UW Medicine supports the joint consensus statement and is one of the signatures among other healthcare institutions, which includes Public Health-Seattle & King County (Public Health) and six other public health districts.
“The commitment of healthcare and public health leaders to work together and collaborate on strategies and solutions to support patient care across the region has been the cornerstone of our health and medical response," Executive Director of Northwest Healthcare Response Network Onora Lien said in the statement. "The development of this consensus statement and recommitment among healthcare leaders to continue masking in healthcare facilities exemplifies the strength of our partnerships, the power of the ongoing collaboration across the region, and exemplifies the dedication to continuing to protect the health and safety of patients, staff and the most vulnerable in our communities.”
On Monday at the UW Medical Center in Montlake, the facility's main hospital, patients coming and going told KOMO News they were more than happy to continue wearing a mask at the hospital even after the mandate is lifted next month.
Shoreline's Alan Rowe said he has to visit the medical center every weekday for treatment. He was relieved to hear the decision for continued masking and called it a "good public health policy."
You might not feel you need to wear a mask because you are healthy and fine," Rowe said. "But that doesn't mean what you are spreading isn't going to affect other people.
He still wears a mask when he's out in public, such as at the grocery store, and he said he understands others who stopped wearing a mask in similar settings and facilities outside of healthcare spaces.
"I feel very differently in a healthcare setting because, in this situation, it's my health," he said. "There are a lot of people carrying lots of things and a lot who could easily spread things to people who don't have the immune system to deal with that, whether it's COVID, the flu, or something else."
Jill Henson of Monroe, who battles cystic fibrosis, agreed. Henson has to visit the hospital every three months for her chronic condition.
"I've been dealing with it my whole life," Henson said. "We've gotten so used to wearing them it's not a big deal, or it shouldn't be... I respect places like this who ask to do it."
Health leaders insist masking in such facilities is necessary because the "current community burden of COVID-19 remains substantial" and is underestimated by case reporting.
CDC data shows both cases and deaths overall are trending down, but the latest weekly new case data gives insight into the pandemic hold. In the United States, as of March 22, weekly new cases totaled 133,521, weekly deaths totaled 2,060, and hospitalization admissions at 2,445, both for the same weekly time period.
In a Public Health blog post, the county health agency said it supports continued masking in these settings as well as support for a unified regional approach to decrease the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in healthcare facilities.
"A regional consensus ensures a consistent and clear message that these healthcare facilities prioritize the health and safety of both their patients and employees," the blog said.
“No one should get a preventable infection because they need to seek healthcare," Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health said in the blog. "Masking is an important way we can help make visiting healthcare facilities safer for the many people in our community of all ages who are at increased risk for severe infections. Public Health – Seattle & King County (and Washington Department of Health) continues to recommend masks for patients, healthcare providers, and visitors in healthcare settings. The decision by regional healthcare providers to require masking is consistent with our recommendation."
Public Health listed other health jurisdictions in agreement with the masking requirement on its blog:
"Local health jurisdictions in our region including Public Health – Seattle & King County, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Snohomish County Health Department, Kitsap Public Health District, San Juan Health Department, and Clallam and Jefferson County Public Health Departments fully support the decision by healthcare organizations to require masking in their facilities at this time in order to decrease the ongoing risk of COVID-19."
Health experts insist also at issue is the risk for severe disease associated with infection among vulnerable populations who must visit healthcare settings.
DOH has maintained that masks are still recommended for patients, health care providers, and visitors in health care settings. Licensed healthcare facilities are also still required to have infection prevention policies consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, according to the DOH.
“Masks have been – and will continue to be – an important tool, along with vaccinations, to keep people healthy and safe,” said Dr. Umair Shah, Washington's Secretary of Health. “We are thankful for our health and long-term care providers, staff members, patients, and all Washingtonians, for following the important public health measures put in place during the pandemic to protect one another.”
Public Health said masking recommendations and requirements for healthcare facilities should be reevaluated "as we learn more about the direction and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic over time."