Some hospitals pushing medical-grade masks over cloth coverings as omicron spreads

Citing community transmission and record high cases of COVID-19 as the omicron variant spreads, U.S. hospitals and health systems are urging patients and visitors to opt for medical-grade face masks instead of cloth versions.

One such organization is Chesterfield, Mo.-based Mercy, a health system that operates hospitals in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

"To best protect our patients, co-workers and visitors from the highly contagious omicron variant, Mercy is shifting away from cloth masks and asking anyone entering its facilities to wear a medical-grade or higher face mask," the health system said in a statement shared with Becker's. "Masks will be provided to those who need them. The recent change goes along with revised visitor guidelines, effective Jan. 3, to help reduce spread of COVID-19 within our hospitals and clinics."

Mercy, which also has clinics, outpatient services and outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, is not alone.

Lebanon, N.H.-based Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, New Hampshire's only academic health system and the state's largest private employer, updated its mask policy Dec. 8.

The policy states that individuals at any health system facility must wear a medical-grade mask.

The health system said patients, caregivers, providers and staff who arrive at a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health facility wearing a cloth mask "will be given a medical mask to wear and must wear a medical mask the entire time that they are in any D-H facility." 

"D-H is closely monitoring the levels of COVID-19 in our communities and will update this rule as needed," the health system added. 

Sarah Avery, a spokesperson for Duke University Health System in Durham, N.C., told Becker's the health system's hospitals are also requiring that patients, visitors and staff use hospital-grade masks, which are available at entrances. Additionally, N-95 masks are available for employees who request them.

And at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, patients and visitors are being asked to ditch cloth masks and wear surgical/procedural masks.

"While a high-quality cloth mask may perform similarly to a medical-grade mask, patients and visitors use a wide range of face coverings, making standardization necessary," the health system said in a news release updated Dec. 30. "Single-layer cloth masks, neck gaiters and bandanas are commonly worn, for example, and do not provide optimal protection to help ensure the health and safety of all."

Mayo said patients and visitors will be offered a surgical/procedural mask when they arrive at a facility, and patients who have cloth masks or masks with exhalation valves, gaiters or bandanas will be required to wear a medical-grade mask (surgical/procedural, N-95 or KN-95). Based on their preference, patients and visitors may wear their surgical/procedural mask on top of a cloth mask, Mayo said.

Marti Leitch, a spokesperson for Columbus-based Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Becker's that throughout the pandemic, the center has required medical-grade disposable masks for anyone in its facilities, and they are available at the facility's public entrances.

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