Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset this past...

Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset this past May. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island medical leaders Monday urged caution in lifting the mask mandate for health care facilities, citing the flood of ongoing influenza cases coming to local hospitals, along with other winter respiratory viruses.

The state Health Department announced Friday that the mandate requiring staff, patients and visitors to be masked when visiting hospitals, nursing homes, home health care and hospice agencies and diagnostic and treatment centers would be lifted this past Sunday — ending one of the last COVID-19 pandemic-era requirements.

In a Dear Administrator letter, Dr. James McDonald, the acting state Health Department commissioner, told health care facilities that they could either lift the mandate or craft their own plan based on transmission levels across the region. Those plans, he said, should include a strategy to re-implement the mask mandate if COVID-19 rates significantly increase across the state.

The guidance, which comes as the state approaches the third anniversary of the pandemic, aligns New York's policy with those from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended lifting the health care masking mandate last September.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island medical leaders, citing the flood of influenza cases, along with other winter respiratory viruses, urged caution after the state lifted a mask mandate for health care facilities.
  • Northwell Health is keeping the mandate in place for now, Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital plans to review the masking policy in a week to determine whether to lift the rule, and Stony Brook University Hospital will keep the mandate while it evaluates its policies.
  • Health care systems that ended the mandate Sunday include Catholic Health Services of Long Island, NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island and NuHealth, which runs Nassau University Medical Center and A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Northwell Health, which is keeping the mandate in place for now, said he would have preferred the department hold off on lifting the mandate until the beginning of April, when influenza season is over.

"That's not to say that in time we won't make adjustments," said Farber, adding he will continue to be masked when seeing patients. " … I do think it's prudent that we reevaluate this decision and decide how we're going move forward in another month or so when influenza and other winter respiratory viruses have calmed down. I think that's a more nuanced and better approach. And that's what I think Northwell will end up doing."

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said there was "no absolute right or wrong answer" in deciding whether health care facilities should continue to require masking.

"But we'd like to see those numbers continue to go down a little bit before we make any major changes," Glatt said, adding that South Nassau would review the masking policy in a week to determine whether to lift the requirement. "It's very hard to make a change and then change it back … So we'd like to go about it a little bit more slowly and take a slightly more conservative approach."

In a statement, the Health Department said it "continues to affirm the importance of masking as a vital and effective infection prevention strategy."

Stony Brook University Hospital, issued a statement Sunday that while it's "carefully evaluating our policies" it would keep the mandate in place.

"For now, our policy has not changed, and everyone — patients, visitors, employees, students, vendors — must still wear well-fitting masks covering the nose and mouth in all Stony Brook Medicine hospitals, patient-care settings and off-site clinic locations," the hospital said.

Others health care systems ended the mandate on Sunday. They include Catholic Health Services of Long Island, which runs six Long Island hospitals, NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola and NuHealth, which runs Nassau University Medical Center and A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility.

Michael Balboni, executive director of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, a trade association representing nursing homes across the state, said it makes sense to end the mandate for elder care facilities, in part because of the declining number of COVID deaths among seniors. And while nursing homes will be relieved not to face stiff fines from the state for staff members not wearing a mask, he worries what will happen if the mandate is eventually re-implemented.

"The safest thing is to keep [masking] in place until the department gets the [regulations] gone and we see what [inspections] look like," said Balboni, who expects a split among area nursing homes requiring face coverings. " … But I know that a lot of staff and residents want it gone."

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