Taikwan Wright waits outside while his nephew is treated for...

Taikwan Wright waits outside while his nephew is treated for asthma in the ICU at Bellevue Hospital on Wednesday. New York City has resumed a mask mandate for the city’s 11 public hospitals.  Credit: AP/Mary Conlon

Several Long Island hospital systems are recommending visitors and staff wear masks among a rise in COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses, but are stopping short of a mask mandate imposed at public New York City hospitals.

The spike in cases prompted the NYC Health and Hospitals to require masks for everyone who enters its hospitals, community health centers and nursing homes.

The requirement, which took effect Dec. 26, is necessary to “protect our patients, staff, and the community,” said HHC spokesman Christopher Miller.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the amount of respiratory illness — including fever plus a cough or sore throat — that causes people to seek health care is “elevated or increasing” across most of the United States. Experts say getting vaccinated against flu, COVID-19 and RSV is still the best way to prevent serious illness.

On Long Island, COVID-19 hospitalizations nearly tripled between Dec. 1 and Tuesday, from 229 to 657, according to state health department data.

That is still below the 912 hospitalizations on Jan. 3, 2023, when COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked, and the peak in 2022, which was on Jan. 11.

Hospitalizations also nearly tripled in New York City between Dec. 1 and Tuesday, from 458 to 1,314. That’s significantly below the 1,957 cases a year ago.

Because COVID-19 test results no longer have to be reported to the state, experts analyze hospitalizations as a way to monitor impact of the virus. Levels of COVID-19 in wastewater, another measure of virus in the community, are high at every site on Long Island.

Dr. David Dowdy, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said “in an ideal world,” health care facilities would institute mask mandates for employees whenever levels of respiratory viruses are high.

“It's worth thinking about in health care facilities in general,” he said. “This is something we should have been doing all along, not necessarily related to COVID, per se, but just to respiratory viruses in general.”

Dowdy said masks help protect vulnerable patients.

“You have a lot of people who are going to be in hospitals who have compromised immune systems, and them getting the flu is not the same as everyone else getting the flu,” he said. “We're talking about places where you have a concentration of people who don't have the same ability to fight off infections, so I don't think it's an unreasonable step to take.”

Reports of lab-confirmed cases of influenza have been increasing every week, with more than 28,000 reported across the state for the week ending Dec. 23 — the most recent data available on the state Department of Health website. That's more than triple the 8,273 lab-confirmed cases for the week ending Dec. 2.

So far, 8,324 cases have been reported in Nassau County for this season and 8,203 in Suffolk County.

Nationally, there have been at least 7.1 million illnesses, 73,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu this season, according to CDC estimates.

Northwell Health officials said they encourage staff and visitors to wear masks but there is no mandate at this time.

Officials at Catholic Health, Northwell Health, Stony Brook Medicine, Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital and NYU Langone Health said they are following an order from the state health commissioner requiring staffers who did not get the flu vaccine to wear masks.

In addition, all staff and visitors at NYU Langone Health must wear a mask if they are working at or visiting the emergency departments where immunocompromised patients are receiving care, according to the health system's policy. Visitors are required to wear masks if they are visiting an immunocompromised patient.

Health care workers and employees at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks when they enter a patient's room, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease expert and chair of the department of medicine.

“We continue to monitor our (and other institutions’) COVID cases to see if we need to take even stronger action,” Glatt said in an email. “Masks can be an effective method to diminish the spread of various respiratory pathogens. Coupled with appropriate identification and isolation of patients, appropriate masking, and isolation can help control and decrease the spread of infectious agents.”

Stony Brook Medicine's leadership team is “continually monitoring and assessing the hospitalizations for respiratory viruses on a daily and weekly basis, the infection rates in Suffolk County, as well as reviewing information and updates from the CDC and state Department of Health, officials said.

Stony Brook Medicine already requires all health care workers at its four hospitals to wear a mask when providing direct patient care. Patients and visitors are encouraged to wear a mask.

Masks are optional at Catholic Health, where officials said they are following the guidance of the state health department.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Several hospital systems across Long Island are recommending but not mandating staff and visitors to wear masks due to a rise in COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.
  • Masks are now mandatory at hospitals and other facilities run by the New York City Health & Hospitals Corporation.
  • Experts say masks can help stem the spread of these diseases.
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