TAMPA — In another sign of life returning to something akin to normal during the COVID-19 pandemic, most local Tampa Bay hospitals have relaxed once-strict rules about patients, visitors and medical staffers wearing masks.
The surgical mouth-coverings — once mandatory at medical facilities to prevent the spread of the virus — are now merely recommended at most of the region’s major hospitals, although there are exceptions.
The move follows new guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September that said masks are no longer required in health care settings like hospitals, doctors’ offices and nursing homes in communities where COVID-19 transmission levels are low. Under the agency’s three-color coded system, transmission is low or green when a county has fewer than 200 cases and 10 hospital admissions per 100,000 people in the past seven days. Transmission levels are currently low in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
BayCare Health System amended the rules for its 15 Tampa Bay region hospitals and clinics on Oct. 12. Masks are required for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected to have the virus. People visiting loved ones in the hospital no longer need to mask up, but the nonprofit hospital chain states that people with COVID-19 symptoms should not visit patients.
To protect medical and other workers, the hospital is still requiring that physicians, nurses and other medical workers wear masks when providing direct care to patients. That includes entering patient rooms, pushing stretchers or wheelchairs in the hall and transporting or delivering food to a patient.
“BayCare chose to continue masking when providing direct patient care and services regardless of whether our counties are ‘green’ or not,” Laura Arline, BayCare chief quality officer, said in an email. “This helps to provide an extra layer of protection for both our patients and our team members and physicians.”
Masks are now merely recommended at Tampa General Hospital and its satellite facilities, according to its website, and also at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. Masks are also optional at the 14 hospitals in AdventHealth’s West Florida division and in all Moffitt Cancer Center facilities. But they are still mandatory in the centers’ bone and marrow transplant and cellular immunotherapy inpatient and clinic rooms and the malignant hematology inpatient and clinic rooms.
“We happily accommodate any patients who request their care team wear a mask during their appointment,” said spokesperson Kim Polacek.
One exception is Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, which still requires masks in any areas where there are patients. The hospital made the decision in part because of the current surge of other respiratory diseases, including flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, said Chief Medical Officer Joseph Perno.
“Masking helps for all respiratory viruses,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to roll back something that is helping our patients and our staff.”
COVID-19 transmission levels have fallen steadily since August when the state was reporting almost 75,000 cases per week. There were 12,325 cases in a seven-day period through Nov. 9.
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Locally, Pinellas recorded 543 cases in that same period, equivalent to roughly 56 cases per 100,000 people. Hillsborough recorded 872 cases, roughly 59 per 100,000 people.
So does this latest relaxation of COVID-19 protocols suggest that the pandemic is over?
Arline said it’s still too soon for the public to drop their guard, and she recommended people get the new bivalent booster shot. It includes a component of the original virus strain and of the omicron variant, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
“We are at a point in the pandemic in which we have treatments and vaccines available, and most Americans have developed some immunity from either vaccination or natural disease,” Arline said. “Unfortunately, we have some new variants that will likely increase cases again as we head into the holiday season.”