As U.S. COVID cases rise, will mask mandates return? New COVID variants are fueling hospitalizations and prompting some schools and hospitals to reinstate mask mandates. Others are considering or ruling out the possibility, leaving it up to individuals.

As U.S. COVID hospitalizations rise, some places are bringing mask mandates back

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A spike in COVID-19 cases is bringing mask mandates back to some parts of the country. In Syracuse, N.Y., Upstate Medical University is once again requiring masks in its hospitals. Here to tell us why is their director of global health, Dr. Stephen Thomas. So, Dr. Thomas, what went into the decision to reinstate the mask mandate?

STEPHEN THOMAS: Good morning, and thank you for having me. Well, we've been, for about three years now, I guess - it's been a long time - we've been following multiple different metrics to kind of understand what the risks were for our patients and for our community. And some of these that we've been following recently have been the number of patients being admitted to the hospital either with or for COVID, and No. 2 is the number of staff that have been out of work due to illness. Three is that New York, and central New York in particular, has a very robust wastewater testing program. And we saw that the levels of virus were dramatically increasing in the wastewater. And we also saw, although very small in number, we did see some hospital-acquired COVID infections. And so all of those are what prompted us to make a decision.

MARTÍNEZ: When it came to the number of people admitted and the workers, what was the threshold that kind of helped trigger this?

THOMAS: Well, we had had a long period, fortunately, of just sort of a very kind of low level, basal level of staff being out of work and patients being admitted to the hospital. And it wasn't the - it wasn't a threshold, a specific number that triggered a decision. But the trends that we were seeing over a week to two-week period. And, you know, one of the other things that we get out of wastewater is we can test and understand exactly which variant and which lineage of variants are circulating in our community. And we had picked up the EG.5, which we know can be a very highly transmissible variant. So it was the overall trends, not a specific number.

MARTÍNEZ: Is anything else back, such as distancing or anything from the - from our COVID past?

THOMAS: No. So what we have required - we were very, very specific because our goals were very specific. We wanted to, No. 1, protect our patients and, No. 2, protect the men and women who work in our facility, who take care of them. So we implemented universal masking for staff and visitors and patients only in clinical areas. So we're a university. We're large. We have a lot of non-clinical areas. Universal masking is not being mandated in non-clinical areas.

MARTÍNEZ: How are people and workers reacting to the mandatory masking?

THOMAS: Well, once the notification went out, within an hour, we were kind of doing the walkaround. And implementation was very, very quick. People really didn't seem to think twice about it. There are always outliers. There are always people that are asking questions about the data and the science and, you know, does universal masking make a difference? But we try to communicate that in universal masking in health care settings, the data is very clear. It reduces transmission.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. Doctor, thanks.

THOMAS: Thank you.


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