St. Louis health director urges caution as hospitals drop mask requirements

Update March 17 with BJC Healthcare also lifting mask requirements

Washington University Medicine and BJC Healthcare will relax masking requirements next Wednesday, they announced Friday. Due to reduced cases of COVID-19, influenza and RSV, masks will become situational for employees and optional for patients in the healthcare system.

March 16 original story

After a decision by three regional hospital systems to drop their mask requirements three years into the pandemic, St. Louis’ chief health officer is urging caution.

SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s no longer require patients, visitors or staff to wear masks, the hospitals said, citing declining levels of COVID-19 in the community and low hospitalizations.

“We can’t have a black-and-white approach to mandates just because the overwhelming majority of us are fortunate enough to belong to a certain demographic that doesn’t put us at risk,” said Dr Mati Hlatshwayo. Davis, director of health for St. Louis, said Thursday.

As the health officer for the general public, Hlatshwayo Davis said she tends to think of the most vulnerable people. However, making this decision is not easy, she said, and each health system must do what is best for it, based on staffing capacities and the patient population.

“There is certainly not – and there may not be a breakthrough, understandably – a cut-and-paste approach when people implement or reduce certain policies or certain mandates,” a- she declared.

The move is part of what is likely to be a growing trend, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

“Other hospitals would be expected to follow by relaxing their policies where conditions and clinical judgment indicate that it is no longer necessary,” said association spokesman Dave Dillon.

There are a few systems in the area that still require masks. BJC Healthcare, one of the region’s largest healthcare providers, is one of them.

“BJC continues to closely monitor case rates of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections in the hospital and community to determine when we can safely reduce the use of masks in our healthcare facilities. “, BJC wrote in a press release. “If rates stay consistently low, changes could be coming soon.”

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Sisters Health System in O’Fallon, Ill., also requires its patients and staff to wear a mask, a spokeswoman said.

“We continue to assess this issue as respiratory and COVID-19 cases continue to decline,” Kelly Barbeau said.

Most counties surrounding St. Louis have COVID case rates of 10 per 100,000 or less, according to the New York Times. Calhoun County in Illinois has by far the highest rate at 30 per 100,000 population. Home to 4,000 people, the county is seeing an average of 1.4 cases per day.

A spokesperson for the St. Louis County Public Health Department declined to comment Thursday on the hospital move.

“But we would like to emphasize that COVID-19 continues to spread in our community, and we still recommend that individuals wear masks in crowded indoor spaces,” spokesperson Christopher Ave said.

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St. Louis health director urges caution as hospitals drop mask requirements

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