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Trinity Health Grand Rapids employees (from left) Rebecca Valko, Elizabeth Jandernoa and Kathy Moore. Trinity Health Grand Rapids employees (from left) Rebecca Valko, Elizabeth Jandernoa and Kathy Moore. Credit: Trinity Health

Major health systems dropping mask mandates in ‘momentous’ shift of pandemic policy

BY Thursday, April 13, 2023 04:39pm

Several Michigan health systems are mostly dropping mask mandates that they imposed three years ago early in the pandemic, citing a dramatic decline in COVID-19 patients, vaccines and readily available treatments. 

The health systems said in a joint announcement today that they are moving immediately or over the next week to make masks optional in their facilities. Some exceptions will include nursing facilities and transplant and oncology centers. 

Each of the 12 health systems in today’s announcement will continue to offer face masks and hand sanitizer at entrances for patients, visitors and employees. Patients also can still request that their care providers wear a mask. 

“Quite honestly, today feels a bit like a momentous day for us. I can’t wait until 6 a.m. tomorrow morning when I can walk into work and not be wearing a mask,” Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Corewell Health in West Michigan, said during a virtual press event today. 

“COVID has changed. We’re in a different time, we all know,” Elmouchi said. “While we all fully recognized that masks were very appropriate and necessary, we also recognize that we’re in a different stage of the pandemic now.” 

Starting at 6 a.m. Friday, Corewell Health will make masks optional for patients and clinical staff at all hospitals and locations, except long-term care and skilled nursing facilities and transplant clinics. As well, patients with respiratory symptoms will still “absolutely, 100 percent be required to wear a mask,” Elmouchi said. 

Patients with COVID-19 now account for less than 3 percent of the people presently hospitalized at Corewell’s hospitals, and about half of those patients are there for different reasons, Elmouchi said, 

“For everyone to be masking at this point, given the low penetration of COVID in our community, given the lack of seriousness in our hospitals, we just feel that it’s a lever we don’t need to pull anymore,” he said. “Our patients really want to see our faces and we want to see their faces. It’s hard to take care of people when you can’t see them smile.” 

Easing mask mandates that were intended to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID could change should another case surge occur or if a new variant emerges, Elmouchi said. A surge in flu or RSV cases in children could also lead to restoring a masking mandate. 

“The fall will come and there could be the potential for a COVID surge that we start seeing and we decide that masking is important for a period of time,” he said. 

At Trinity Health Michigan, dropping the mask mandate was met with “lots of masks being thrown into the air,” said Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Rosalie Tocco-Bradley. 

“It’s mostly relief and gratitude that we made it to this point in the pandemic. Everybody’s ready for this transition,” Tocco-Bradely said. 

Trinity Health Michigan on Monday will make masks optional for patients, visitors and staff at hospitals, outpatient facilities, home health, and physician offices. Masks will still be required in senior-living communities. 

“Putting everybody in masks — including the staff, patients and family — really came at a great cost. It disconnects you a little bit more from your patient, from the family members, and I think it’s a great relief for everybody that we can take those masks down, see facial expressions, and actually understand what others are saying without sometimes asking them to repeat it or to speak up,” Tocco-Bradley said. “It’s going to be great for overall morale.”

New guidelines  

Each health system will post their new mask policies on their websites. Here’s a breakdown of what the other health systems in West Michigan are doing: 

  • Ascension Health, which owns Ascension Borgess in Kalamazoo and has several facilities in Southwest Michigan, dropped its mask mandate effective immediately, except for areas for patients with compromised immune systems: intensive care, oncology and transplant units. 
  • Bronson Healthcare in Kalamazoo will make face masks optional beginning April 18 for patients, visitors, and employees at its hospitals and outpatient locations, except for individuals with symptoms for a respiratory or infectious illness. Bronson will continue to make masks mandatory at its Bronson Commons nursing facility. 
  • Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital drops its mask mandate at 7 a.m. Friday for patients, visitors and clinical staff at its Grand Rapids hospital, West Michigan outpatient locations, and Mary Free Bed Orthotics & Prosthetic + Bionics locations. The Mary Free Bed Sub-Acute Rehabilitation program will continue to require masks. 
  • Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services starting today no longer requires a face mask, except in 24-hour patient care settings and specialty care units. Pine Rest said it will continue to screen and test patients for COVID-19 when admitted and will not require a mask unless a person has symptoms or has been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

In a separate announcement today, University of Michigan Health-West said it will no longer require masks for patients and visitors at its hospital and outpatient centers “except when they are seeking medical care for respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, visiting patients in precautions for COVID-19, or if a household contact has COVID-19.” The health system will still require staff to use a mask in “several situations” that include interactions with patients with an immunodeficiency, transplant recipients, long-term care facility residents, patients who have an acute respiratory illness, or patients who request them to wear a mask.

In today’s joint announcement the health systems noted that COVID-19 “has become an illness that, in most cases, will be treated like other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu,” and that the virus “will likely remain for years to come.” 

Since the pandemic hit Michigan in early 2020, more than 3.1 million people in the state became ill with COVID-19, and more than 42,600 died from the illness.

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