Masks are no longer required for most people at UCHealth hospitals and clinics now that fewer people are testing positive for COVID-19.
Anyone who prefers to wear a mask is, of course, welcome to continue doing so. Immunocompromised people and those at high risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses may choose to keep wearing masks and avoiding crowded places.
In addition, people who are sick with respiratory symptoms, including coughing and sneezing, should stay home. If sick people need to come to a hospital or health care facility for medical care, they should wear a mask to prevent the spread of infection to others.
Why are mask mandates at UCHealth being lifted?
COVID-19 is now endemic and people will continue to contract the virus. But the change in masking policies at health care facilities should give people confidence that we can live with the virus and can go on with normal life.
“We consider it safe to lift mask mandates,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and one of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado. “While we should all be kind and considerate of others, it’s wonderful to go back to normal.”
The decision to lift mask mandates is based on data. Positivity rates for COVID-19 tests have been declining. During challenging periods of the pandemic, positivity rates for COVID-19 tests soared well over 25%, meaning that the virus was causing widespread illness. Now, positivity rates and hospitalizations have fallen, which is key, said Barron, who is also a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
She and other public health experts have used positivity and vaccination rates as key benchmarks throughout the pandemic. The data and models have guided policies for various issues, from mask mandates to hospital visitation rules.
While Barron is confident that the new mask guidelines are safe, she understands that some people will be uncomfortable.
“Lifting of mask mandates in health care facilities may cause some angst. It’s the right thing to do. The science supports this decision. But for some people, it will be an adjustment,” Barron said.
Employees, patients and visitors: Be kind and considerate
Barron is urging people to be kind and considerate as we transition to new guidelines.
“Be kind to those who might still have reservations about these changes,” Barron said.
“Some people will be thrilled. Others will still be scared of getting sick and will need extra time. That’s OK,” Barron said.
“We can agree to disagree. No one is forcing anyone to take their masks off. If people are not ready to take masks off, that’s fine. We have all suffered losses during the pandemic. We need to understand that different people have had different experiences,” Barron said.
Hospitals always have had units where people are especially vulnerable and masks and other protective gear always have been required in those units. For instance, patients who have just had lung transplants are especially vulnerable to respiratory infections. Visitors and health care providers in those settings still will wear masks to protect patients.
Patients who have an infectious disease may be required to wear a mask, and their care team members and visitors also may be required to wear masks and other types of person protective equipment including eye protection, gloves or gowns. These infection prevention measures have been standard for decades to help keep patients, visitors and health care workers safe.
Barron is encouraging sick people to be considerate as well.
As mask mandates ease, here are recommendations from UCHealth’s infectious disease expert:
- If you are sick, stay home and don’t expose friends or co-workers to whatever illness you have.
- If you are sick and are coughing or sneezing and need to visit a hospital or your doctor’s office, please wear a mask.
- If you are meeting with friends who are protecting loved ones who are especially vulnerable if they get COVID-19 or flu or other respiratory viruses, please be kind and respect their wishes if they want to wear masks.
- Have open and honest conversations with co-workers and loved ones about choices you want to make.
- Allow people to adjust to new mask rules at their own pace.
- Continue to practice good hygiene. Washing hands and avoiding close contact with people who are sick is always a good idea.
- Use your common sense. If you’re in a crowded restaurant, for instance, and someone is sneezing and coughing right near you, it’s fine to ask to move.
- Be especially careful in crowded, indoor environments. If you are at high risk yourself or are protecting a loved one who is immunocompromised and you wish to continue wearing a mask in those settings, that’s fine.
- Respect rules and adopt practices that work for you. Barron, for example, likes wearing a mask on flights. “On an airplane, I can’t walk away. If I have the bad luck to be near someone who is hacking and sneezing, and I’m in the splash zone, I definitely want to be wearing my mask,” she said.
- And, be aware that mask rules may change next fall or winter if new, especially virulent COVID-19 virus variants emerge or if flu cases spike.
“We never know what’s next,” Barron said. “We will certainly go through phases when new variants will surge. We will respond appropriately if and when that happens.
“But, we don’t wear masks year-round in anticipation of the coming flu season,” she said. “The change in mask mandates is a good thing. We’re learning and we’re responding.”