Local hospital systems change masking policies as WHO lifts global COVID emergency

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

As the end of the public health emergency for COVID approaches, local hospital systems are changing their masking policies.

Both UPMC and WellSpan Health recently announced that universal masking is no longer required at their facilities, although there are subtle differences between the two policies.

"COVID-19 protections, including voluntary masking, and standard and transmission-based precautions remain in effect," UPMC spokesperson Malini Mattler said, explaining the change.

At UPMC, masking is still required in patient areas where individuals are particularly susceptible to infection. WellSpan, meanwhile, stipulates that individuals who suspect they have COVID — or arrive at a facility 10 days following a high-risk exposure — should continue masking. Those visiting immunocompromised patients or in areas designated as requiring masking should continue to do so at WellSpan.

President Joe Biden takes off his mask as he walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on his way to his Rehoboth Beach, Del., home after his most recent COVID-19 isolation, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WellSpan employees must also mask after they've been cleared to return to work after a positive test until all symptoms are gone.

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York County's COVID cases have remained relatively low well into the spring — although the disease continues to be lethal to those who have not been vaccinated.

In the past two weeks, state Department of Health data show the county added 164 cases and nine deaths to its pandemic totals of 148,988 and 1,685. Just two people were hospitalized for COVID as of Wednesday, with none in the ICU or on a ventilator.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has downgraded the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it is no longer a public health emergency of international concern following the advice of an emergency committee that had been formed to address the pandemic.

FILE - Patients lie on hospital beds as they wait at a temporary makeshift treatment area outside Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong, Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. The World Health Organization downgraded its assessment of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, May 5, 2023, saying it no longer qualifies as a global emergency. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

"The Committee’s position has been evolving over the last several months.While acknowledging the remaining uncertainties posted by potential evolution of SARS-CoV-2, they advised that it is time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic," a statement by WHO following the committee's meeting said.

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The recommendation comes days before the U.S. is set to let its own public health emergency expire on Thursday. That will have a wide-ranging effect on several aspects of the health care system, including the pricing of at-home COVID tests. While some private insurers may continue to cover all or some home tests, there will be no longer be a nationwide rule. A two-pack of tests typically costs between $20 and $24.

One exception will be for those enrolled in the government Medicaid program for low-income individuals and families, who will continue to receive free tests until September 2024.

On Friday, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky submitted her resignation, saying the nation was at a time of transition. Her last day will be June 30.

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“I have never been prouder of anything I have done in my professional career,” she wrote in her resignation letter to President Joe Biden.

The CDC also reported Thursday that COVID dropped to the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. last year.

COVID-19 deaths trailed those caused by heart disease, cancer and injuries such as drug overdoses, motor vehicle fatalities and shootings. In 2020 and 2021, only heart disease and cancer were ahead of the coronavirus. That being said, the CDC cautioned that the numbers were only preliminary and could change.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.