A team of doctors and nurses checking on a patient...

A team of doctors and nurses checking on a patient inside the medical intensive care unit at Northwell Hospital in New Hyde Park last year. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

New York’s largest health care provider dropped its mask mandate Tuesday as a growing number of facilities lift or modify COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Northwell Health said face coverings will no longer be required except in certain cases, such as if staff or visitors will be “interacting with patients who have a suspected or confirmed viral respiratory infection or are immunocompromised.”

Three years after the start of the pandemic, the move is “an important milestone in our fight against this deadly disease,” Northwell said in a statement. Before Tuesday, masks were required in all Northwell patient care areas. The restriction previously was eased in nonclinical areas.

If local COVID-19 transmission rates increase, mask rules could change, according to New Hyde Park-based Northwell, which treats more than 2 million patients a year and employs about 80,000 workers.

COVID rates have declined on Long Island and throughout the New York region. On Long Island, 101 positive COVID test results were reported on Monday, down 92% from a year earlier, state figures show. The disease has taken a heavy toll, though, causing more than 9,000 deaths on Long Island since the pandemic hit New York three years ago.

The change at Northwell follows a state Department of Health announcement in mid-February that health care facilities should create mask policies that follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC says when COVID-19 transmission rates are “high,” health care workers must wear masks around patients. If not, facilities do not need to require masks, with certain exceptions, such as if a person has respiratory symptoms or an elevated risk of COVID-19.

COVID-19 transmission rates on Long Island are “moderate,” according to CDC data.

Mask rules vary at Long Island health care facilities.

Manhattan-based Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Hospital for Special Surgery and Weill Cornell Medicine, which have Long Island outpatient facilities, continue to require masks in patient areas. 

Others are lifting or modifying mask mandates. Most, though, still require masks for people who have respiratory symptoms or will interact with an immunocompromised patient, among other exceptions.

Mount Sinai Health System is expected to end most mask requirements at the end of March, including at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of the department of medicine at South Nassau. Until then, masks are required in patient care areas, Glatt said.

“We’ve reached a nuanced point,"  he said.

Rockville Centre-based Catholic Health lifted most mask requirements in mid-February, a spokeswoman for the health care system said.

NYU Langone Health also ended most mask mandates in mid-February.

Stony Brook Medicine announced March 13 that masks are now “encouraged but no longer required” except at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.

Summit Health and CityMD "encourage everyone to wear masks to protect themselves and others," but use is voluntary, a spokeswoman for the urgent, primary and specialty care chains said. 

Pamela Clark, 64, who gets medical care at an NYU Langone facility in Lake Success, said she will continue to wear a mask, but is comfortable with requirements being lifted since mandates sparked “anger issues” for so many patients.

“I’m OK with it being optional,” as long as medical offices continue to provide masks and sick patients wear them, said Clark, a security guard.

Kathy Quinn, 54, a certified patient advocate in Bellport, said she was happy to find that her doctor's office no longer requires masks, but she offered to put hers on when she saw that her doctor wore one. The doctor’s husband has cancer, Quinn said.

“I offered out of respect and consideration because that’s the way we have to do things now,” Quinn said. “Everyone has a different comfort level.”

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