California’s mask mandate for all healthcare settings came to end on Monday. Patients and staff are no longer required to wear face masks in hospitals and long-term care facilities, but it is still highly recommended. Nurses say the move puts their health at risk at a time when some 139,991 Americans are getting infected with COVID-19 every week.
Members of the California Nurses Association recently voiced their opposition to the move, which they say puts their health at risk.
“We know that wearing a mask — a high-quality mask, a well-fitted mask — is a very simple, non-pharmaceutical intervention that everyone can do to protect themselves from COVID,” said Dolores Flanagan, a nurse who works in San Francisco. “It just doesn’t follow the science. It doesn’t make sense. It is an affront to everything that nurses do.”
Now that the state mask mandate is null and void, it’s up to each facility to implement its own mask requirements.
“My first reaction was one of surprise. A little shocked actually. Not because I don’t think it’s the right time for some context,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. “It was something that we were doing so religiously for so long. It gave healthcare workers a lot of confidence, improved morale at a time when we didn’t have a lot of tools.”
But Chin-Hong knows the decision is being driven by data surrounding the spread of COVID-19. The country’s public health emergency is set to end on May 11. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, daily reported COVID-19 cases are down 92% since January 2022. COVID-19 deaths have declined by over 80%, and new COVID-19 hospitalizations are down nearly 80%.
Chin-Hong said he expects many hospitals will still require masks for all patients and staff but that requiring every facility to mask up no longer makes sense. “You can’t eliminate the risks altogether. You’re just trying to lower the risk,” he said.
Infections are still high across many parts of the U.S., especially in rural areas where vaccination rates remain low.
Flanagan says she is still worried about catching viruses like COVD-19 and RSV and that she still plans on wearing a N95 respirator whenever she goes to work.
“It’s entirely necessary that people still be required to mask in healthcare settings where people are vulnerable,” she told a local news outlet. “My principle is that I don’t share indoor air with people at all.”
Nurses like Flanagan say they aren’t taking any chances when it comes to their health.
“I don’t want to be sick, I won’t be able to work and take care of the people of my city,” she said. “I don’t think nurses go into this work without a sense of wanting to do their best to take care of patients and that’s my goal as a nurse.”
But doctors like Chin-Hong say it will go a long way towards helping people get back to a time before COVID-19. The move may also help more people feel comfortable in clinical settings.
When the decision to end the mandate was announced back in March, the California Nurses Association strongly condemned the change in policy.
“In no uncertain terms, this is a failure of public health leadership,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN and executive director of California Nurses Association. “Abandoning these standards is a counterproductive and unscientific approach to curbing the spread and evolution of Covid-19. This decision endangers the health and safety of nurses and other health care workers, hurts their ability to access personal protective equipment from employers, and ultimately exacerbates the health care staffing crisis that political leaders have vowed to tackle.”
The members say the move runs contrary to the fact that COVID-19 is still spreading.
“We need leadership from the state,” Castillo added. “They want to pretend COVID-19 is over, but it’s not over. Infections are still going up, and we know that’s an undercount because people aren’t testing. Nurses and patients do not live in a world of make believe.”