Face masks will become optional for patients, visitors and health care workers at New Mexico’s four major hospital systems starting on April 16.
Masks will no longer be required in Lovelace Health System, Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the University of New Mexico Health System, and Christus St. Vincent, the hospital systems said in a joint news release published on Friday.
The announcement came shortly after a meeting of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Medical Advisory Team, and on the same day that the state’s public health order expired.
The health systems are waiting until April 16 to lift their mask mandates “to ensure that there is additional time to protect team members, patients and their families during the current respiratory illness season.”
Patients and visitors to all four hospital systems will be asked to don a mask if they have symptoms of a respiratory condition.
Parts of hospitals designed for “particularly vulnerable populations” should continue universal masking, the joint news release states. Universal masking is when everyone in a given space wears a mask, as opposed to one-way masking, where people choose whether to wear one.
“We’re asking people to use their best judgment in understanding their own risk, and the risk to others around them,” said Dr. Steve McLaughlin, chief medical officer for the University of New Mexico Hospital.
Health care workers “are supported and encouraged to continue masking,” the joint news release states.
UNM Hospital staff will continue to wear masks at all times in operating rooms, McLaughlin said, or in situations where a patient may have an infectious disease or may be at risk for contracting one.
UNM Health and Health Sciences Center leaders will determine if future changes need to be made based on a color-coded system created by McLaughlin and the UNM Hospital epidemiologist, according to an email sent to all UNM employees on March 30 and obtained by Source New Mexico.
The system has three levels: “extreme risk,” where masking would be required in UNM Hospital buildings; “seasonal/surge,” where masking would be “strongly” encouraged in clinical buildings; and “endemic,” where masking is optional.
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Christus St. Vincent’s policy is for health care workers to not work if they have symptoms, Gonzales said. All of their workers have either received the COVID vaccine or have been exempted, he said.
“COVID is not gone, it’s not going to go away,” McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be with us forever probably, along with things like influenza and RSV, but the numbers are down to a much more manageable level.”
Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical and clinical transformation officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said they will continue to closely monitor data to inform their approach in the future.
“At this time, we have reached a point where the pandemic has receded enough that we can return to many pre-pandemic behaviors,” Mitchell said.
Over 250 people in the U.S. are dying from COVID each day, according to state and local health agencies; official counts are widely acknowledged to be underestimates.
More than 34,000 people have died of COVID in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, through March 30, according to Johns Hopkins University. At least 1.1 million people have died from COVID in the U.S. so far.
The hospitals say face mask requirements for patients and visitors “may be re-instituted” if community transmission rates for COVID, RSV, influenza, measles or other contagious viruses “significantly increases.”
Dr. David Gonzales, chief medical officer for Christus St. Vincent, said so long as the spread of COVID is high, masks will still be required in all “patient care areas” at Christus, including hallways used by patients and visitors.
McLaughlin said the local rate of COVID spread will now be part of what UNM Hospital doctors will consider when deciding whether to test a patient for COVID. Before, they tested every patient for COVID infection.
“We will absolutely be following how these changes, across all four health systems, are impacting things like transmission rates,” McLaughlin said.
COVID continues to be present in the UNM Hospital, McLaughlin said, but the number of infected patients being admitted into the hospital “is significantly lower than any time in the last year.”
UNM is tracking hospital-acquired COVID infections among providers and staff at the request of OSHA, McLaughlin said, but it is not generally available to the public.