It's time to end universal mask mandates in healthcare, infectious disease experts say

Wearing masks at grocery stores, on airplanes, subways and buses was the norm during the height of the pandemic. Now, most mask mandates only remain at hospitals and in healthcare settings, but experts say it is time to walk back those policies.

Less than one month away from the end of the public health emergency on May 11, dozens of health systems and hospitals have already rolled back their mask mandates for patients, visitors and staff with the exception of certain high-risk settings. 

Now in the fourth year of navigating coronavirus, it has largely become endemic rather than a pandemic, and infectious disease experts say policies need to match that. Research published April 18 in the Annals of Internal Medicine detail why and how these policies helped the world navigate the early unknowns of the pandemic, and why and how they should adjust to match what we now know about it. 

Additionally, the authors argue that masking significantly increases the active listening component in clinical settings, sometimes adding to the burden of navigating complex discussions for both patients and physicians because masks can "obscure facial expression; contribute to feelings of isolation; and negatively impact human connection, trust, and perception of empathy," they say. 

On top of that, "interactions between humans and pathogens are inherently dynamic and are constantly evolving, and we have achieved major advancements in the prevention and management of SARS-CoV-2 since the pathogen was initially identified in 2019," researchers wrote. "In recognition of these achievements, the time has come to deimplement policies that are not appropriate for an endemic pathogen when the expected benefits of such policies are low."

Past research has proven mask effectiveness at preventing transmission of COVID-19, but infectious disease experts argue that now we are largely at a point where the "burden of SARS-CoV-2 has been mitigated over time through access to testing, substantial population-level immunity providing durable protection against severe disease, a series of less virulent variants, and widespread availability of medical countermeasures, which in combination have resulted in decreasing infection mortality rates," and as such there is not the same level of pressing need to continue these policies as there was in the beginning. Rather, healthcare providers should use the same protocols to prevent transmission that are used for other respiratory illnesses.

As for informing future masking policies, they argue research should continue to be done and examined in conjunction with "ongoing local reassessment of utility to ensure requirements are not maintained longer than necessary and are reinstated when needed."


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