Boston-area residents critical of mask-optional change in health care rules

While most are trying to weather the pandemic of the past three years, some Bay Staters feel like they’ve been left behind as pandemic-era safety measures wind down.

The only remaining domino of COVID-19 masking mandates fell on Friday when health care facilities lifted the requirement that patients and doctors alike wear the personal protective equipment that slows the spread of COVID.

I don’t think in a healthcare setting I should potentially be exposed to further harm as someone who is already a vulnerable person, said Goshen resident Jennifer Ritz Sullivan, who has a disability that puts her at increased risk for COVID-19 and the requires you to visit your doctor every week.

There have been 979 new confirmed cases of COVID in Massachusetts in the past week, bringing the total confirmed cases to 2,038,680, according to the Department of Public Health. There were 15 new confirmed deaths and a total of 174 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 last week in the state.

Ritz Sullivan dreaded Mother’s Day, a reminder from her mother she lost in December 2020 to COVID when she first contracted the virus two weeks ago from her husband. He was wearing a mask, he said, but he got it at work from another employee who wasn’t.

Though the virus may be mild for some, Ritz Sullivan said she is the sickest person she has ever seen and is concerned Long COVID could further disable her.

For the past three years, Ritz Sullivan has isolated itself from most of society, ordering groceries and having them delivered in cars instead of going into the store and retreating indoors to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. But she now has to choose between the medical care she needs and potential exposure to COVID, she said.

I suppose there are some people who have mild symptoms but for me this is the sickest moment I have ever seen. I mean everything from violent vomiting to cold symptoms, everything. And having it for the first time as the emergency is lifted, combined with the Mother’s Day weekend. There is such a level of coldness that I feel right now. I can only do so much to keep myself safe. I’m doing my best but it’s not enough. You can’t personalize your way out of public health, she said.

Ritz Sullivan is among a group of advocates who participated in a virtual speech last week for the state Department of Public Health to reinstate mask mandates in health care facilities.

Activists met on Zoom to discuss the change in requirements, drove vans around the State House and Department of Public Health with signs that read Give Us Care, Not COVID, posted a sign on the steps of the State House that said We Do Not Consent to Getting COVID At The Doctor and has started a letter writing campaign to lawmakers and DPH officials.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Robbie Goldstein said last week that the end of the emergency order is not the end of COVID.

Goldstein said the department decided to rescind the mandate after extensive consideration, conversation and deliberation, a DPH spokesman said.

Community COVID-19 transmission levels, monitored by the CDC, are declining across the Commonwealth, with no county experiencing high transmission since February of this year. So are the COVID-19 community levels, which are important for monitoring the state of our hospitals and healthcare systems and can be used to identify when to implement prevention strategies, such as masking. Similarly, neighboring states have moved away from mandatory and universal masking in health care and toward a facility-wide, individual criteria-based strategy, DPH spokeswoman Ann Scales said.

The Healey administration will require facilities to develop proactive plans to kick-start COVID-19 prevention strategies, which could include mask mandates if the warning lights start flashing again, Goldstein said.

He did not outline any thresholds or trends that could trigger state action, saying the department wants hospitals and other settings to make local decisions based on the circumstances they face. Healthcare facilities must also continue to provide masks to staff, patients and visitors who want them.

Mass General Brigham came under fire last week when he sent out his new masking policy update, saying patients could not ask staff members to wear a mask because our policies no longer require it. Our system adheres to current public health recommendations, the Boston Business Journal reported.

Disability advocates said the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the DPH has the right, I suppose, to choose to lift the mask requirement, and if so, hospitals have a choice whether to enforce it, what hospitals cannot be free from is their obligation under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. And if someone is disabled and at increased risk of COVID, then that would seem like an absolutely sensible textbook solution for patients to request, said Colin Killick, executive director of the Disability Policy Consortium.

The hospital has since updated this policy online with a new statement that includes, there are circumstances where masking is an appropriate medical intervention. In such circumstances, healthcare professionals and/or patients will continue to mask, per our policies. Patients can ask, but providers determine when and if masking in a particular situation is clinically necessary, according to the Boston Business Journal article.

In addition to Mass General Brigham, Boston Medical Center, Tufts Medicine, Beth Israel Lahey Health and UMass Memorial Health are among the hospitals that ended mask mandates last week.

Some doctors and hospital staff will likely continue to wear masks out of personal preference, but for at least one at Mass General Brigham, one-way masking didn’t seem enough.

Jayda Jones, a public health master’s student and assistant radiology technician resident at Boston Hospital, resigned Thursday the day before patients and other medical personnel were allowed to unmask.

We are just waiting for another major outbreak of COVID-19 to happen again within the hospital to be able to switch back to wearing masks, this is the new policy at Mass General Hospital. But from my point of view it is always necessary because the pandemic is never over, she said.

Jones said she was disappointed at her discharge from the hospital, where she secured a high school internship for the first time because of her interest in public health. Since then, she has worked at other medical facilities, but she returned to MGH for the final year of her public health master’s program.

This is not a disease that magically goes away. This manifests itself in many different ways in the future. We know it. We’ve seen an increase in heart attacks, we’ve seen an increase in adverse cardiovascular outcomes, especially in the younger 20- to 39-year-old group, she said. The disabled community isn’t saying we have to go back into solitary confinement, forcing you to go back to your home. But we were saying that when you enter public spaces, especially places they can’t avoid, please do what you can to make it accessible for them.

When asked, a Mass General Brigham spokesman said he cannot comment on individual employee issues under hospital policy, but we are committed to ensuring that patients can access medical care safely and appropriately.

We always take appropriate precautions to protect all patients. Our policies are based on public health guidelines and those of our infection control experts. At this time, based on this guidance, universal masking is no longer medically necessary [sic] to protect patients from COVID-19, said Michael Morrison, the hospital’s senior director of communications

The Massachusetts Public Health Association and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugees Advocacy Coalition also warned against the revocation of the mandate.

The return to the pre-pandemic status quo, however, ignores important lessons learned and potentially leaves the Commonwealth exposed to the ravages of the next large-scale public health crisis, said Oami Amarasingham, deputy director of the MPHA.

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