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As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into an endemic phase, prevention efforts should be adapted to incorporate all respiratory viruses and mask use policy must be rationally expanded in healthcare settings.
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Epidemiologists, Experts Review Mask Use Policy in Healthcare Settings

Infectious diseases experts advocate for adapting universal masking requirements to changing conditions 

Mass General Brigham
Published:Apr 19, 2023
|2 min read
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The time has come and gone for universal masking in healthcare settings, according to epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts throughout Boston and beyond. In a commentary published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and co-authored by experts from Mass General Brigham, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Tufts Medicine, the VA Healthcare System Boston, and other healthcare systems across the country, the authors describe the changing context and conditions of the pandemic and outline why universal masking should no longer be required in healthcare settings.

“While critically important in the earlier phases of the pandemic, we’ve entered a more stable phase, with substantial population-level immunity, durable protection against severe disease, a series of less virulent variants, and other important and favorable changes,” said Erica S. Shenoy, MD, PhD, medical director of Infection Control for Mass General Brigham, infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and corresponding author. “As conditions change, we need to re-evaluate our infection prevention policies, including masking requirements in healthcare settings, and adapt.”

In the commentary, the authors emphasize different phases of the pandemic and describe that while universal masking was justifiable before medical countermeasures were available, advancements and population immunity have changed the appropriateness of the policy. Highlighting a theme of constant and ongoing change, they review the rationale for initially expanding mask use in healthcare settings, the reasons why de-escalation is needed, and conditions that could prompt reconsideration of mask usage more widely again.

“After three years of universal masking in healthcare, the risk–benefit calculation has shifted,” said Shira Doron, MD, chief infection control officer for Tufts Medicine health system and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “Masks do have downsides, such as impaired communication and disrupted human connection. We are at a stage of the pandemic where it now makes sense to end mandatory masking.”

Given advancements, the authors advocate for managing SARS-CoV-2 in a similar way to how other respiratory viruses are managed in healthcare settings. This includes ensuring healthcare personnel use masks (and eye protection) when engaging in activities that could generate splashes or sprays and having patients mask if they have respiratory symptoms.

“As the pandemic moves into an endemic phase, we need to transition prevention efforts to incorporate all respiratory viruses. Performing risk assessments and applying lessons learned from COVID-19, including how to apply masks, will permit a more flexible, durable response now and in future seasons,” said co-author Sharon Wright, MD, MPH, chief infection prevention officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health in Cambridge, MA.

“The best evidence-based policy making is dynamic and adapts to changing conditions, evidence, and contexts. As all these factors change, even policy goals may need to be updated,” said Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc, infectious diseases specialist, clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System, and senior author of the commentary. Since 2020, she explained, society has been living in a constant state of change during which we have achieved major preventative and therapeutic advancements and the infection fatality rate has fallen dramatically. 

“At the same time, we know universal masking is not without costs, even in healthcare. Given these realities, it is time to update policies once again, recognizing this is unlikely to be the last update. Change and adaptation are expected. That does not mean ‘the science has changed’, but almost everything around it has,” said Branch-Elliman.

- This press release was originally published on the Mass General Brigham website