Hospitals bring back mask mandates as respiratory viruses spike

Jack Tomczuk

All of Philadelphia’s major hospital systems – Jefferson, Penn Medicine and Temple Health – now have masking requirements for staff, patients and visitors at some or all of their medical facilities.

And they are not alone. Hospitals in New York, Los Angeles, Massachusetts and elsewhere have been reintroducing masking mandates in recent weeks, according to the Associated Press.

Unlike previous years, when the focus was clearly on the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital officials have cited a combined uptick of influenza, RSV and coronavirus this winter.

“Now that respiratory virus season is upon us, infection rates are up for flu, RSV virus, and COVID,” Temple executives Michael Young and Carl Sirio said in a letter to employees before the health system’s mask requirement went into effect Wednesday. “We must therefore do everything we can to keep ourselves, our patients, and our colleagues safe and healthy.”

The three viruses accounted for more than 273,000 emergency room visits nationwide for the week ending Dec. 30, data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. That number dropped to about 200,000 the following week.

Pennsylvania, the federal agency says, is experiencing “high overall respiratory illness activity.” CDC guidance states that high-risk individuals should mask up in indoor public spaces.

In the Philadelphia region, 8.1% of those visiting the ER in the final week of December were suffering from a respiratory virus – the highest share since December of last year, according to the CDC.

COVID levels also appear to be rising in the city, as measured through wastewater testing conducted by Philadelphia’s health and water departments. Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths, however, remained low in the city through late December.

Health department officials acknowledged a spike in viral activity since the beginning of November, though they have said the city is not considering public mask mandates.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health encourages residents to stay home if they are sick. If that is impossible, people should wear a high-quality mask while at indoor public places, the department says.

Residents planning to visit someone who is elderly or has a high-risk condition should test for COVID before leaving, the department recommends. Health officials are also asking people to get vaccinated for all three viruses.