During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all grew accustomed to requirements for wearing a mask inside hospitals and medical clinics. As evidence-based protocols have continued to evolve, mask mandates have changed. While mandatory masking ended in late March, you're still encouraged to wear a mask in some situations, such as if you're entering an area with high-risk patients or if you have symptoms of a respiratory virus.
As the threat from respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) evolves, Novant Health is routinely assessing risks to patients, visitors and team members. Should people need additional protection, Novant Health may implement safety guidelines, update visitor restrictions, reinstate mask requirements and encourage vaccines.
Other regional health care systems are also collaboratively making the decision to make masks optional, including Atrium Health, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, CaroMont Health, Cone Health and Randolph Health.
While face mask guidelines will continue to evolve in Novant Health hospitals and clinics, you can always wear a mask if you're more comfortable in one. In fact, there are good reasons you may still want to go ahead and mask up, said Becky DeCamillis, a physician assistant at Novant Health Infectious Disease Specialists - Winston Salem.
“Now as we enter a new phase of discontinuing universal masking in healthcare settings, as we've seen starting to happen across the country, we're all faced with questions like, ‘When do I still need to wear a mask? When is it safe to unmask?’ And the answer is going to be different for everybody in every situation,” DeCamillis said.
To help you make the decision for yourself, here are four reasons you might still want to wear a mask.
1. You don’t want to get the flu, or another virus.
Evidence shows that face masks help protect against viruses other than COVID-19, particularly influenza A and B, the viruses responsible for most cases of the flu. So if you want extra protection from the flu, RSV and other respiratory illness, it’s a good idea to go ahead and put on a face mask.
“We're looking back on our flu seasons of 2021 and 2022, and we see that our flu transmission rates were super low. And that's largely due to masking,” DeCamillis explained. “The overwhelming evidence is that masking works to prevent and reduce transmission of these viruses.”
DeCamillis said there may be times when avoiding illness is more important than others, such as when you have a vacation or a family visit coming up that you want to make sure you’re healthy for.
Other smart precautions to take to avoid contracting the influenza virus are getting an annual flu shot, practicing proper hand hygiene by washing with soap and water for 20 seconds and avoiding touching your face as much as possible. Novant Health offers flu shots from both walk-in clinics and primary care providers.
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2. You are going to be around someone who has a lowered immune system.
While face masks help to protect you from contracting a virus, they also help protect those around you from any virus that you may be carrying. For this reason, DeCamillis encouraged anyone entering a Novant Health hospital or clinic where they may be around immunocompromised individuals to still wear a mask. Immunocompromised means people whose immune systems are low because they are fighting off other diseases. This may include people who are receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer, those who have received an organ transplant or someone with HIV/AIDS.
“This would be a good instance to consider masking, especially in the heart of respiratory viral season,” DeCamillis said. She emphasized that as visitor restrictions loosen, it’s important to keep in mind that some people in hospitals and clinics are susceptible to severe illness and need extra protection.
“It's still really important to make sure we're taking the right contact precautions,” DeCamillis said. “If you want to go visit your family member who is on the oncology unit, for example, I would make sure that you're protecting them the best way you can, and that would include a mask.”
3. You have the sniffles.
Not quite sure if you’ve got allergies or a cold? It’s a good idea to go ahead and keep a face mask in your back pocket in this scenario.
“We're moving out of a phase of testing for every sniffle,” DeCamillis said. “If we don't know what every sniffle is, then a mask can still be an important tool, particularly if you're visiting your friend who just had a baby, or if you're visiting your 95-year-old grandmother, for example.”
If you are entering a Novant Health care facility and have symptoms of a respiratory virus, such as coughing or sneezing, it's always best practice to wear a face mask. You can also stay home and schedule a virtual visit with a Novant Health physician to avoid coming on-site.
If you’re wondering whether your sniffles may be COVID-19, Novant Health offers resources to tell the difference between COVID-19, the flu and a cold, and offers extensive COVID-19 testing and care.
4. Someone else around you is wearing a mask.
A face mask is a way to help protect those around you from illness, and when you see someone with one on, particularly in a health care setting, it may be because it’s extra important for them to avoid viruses. Wearing a face mask can be a simple gesture to help that person feel more comfortable and help keep them safe. For this reason, all Novant Health physicians and care providers will put on a mask upon request during treatment and clinic visits.
“You never know someone else's story,” DeCamillis said. “They may be taking care of a loved one with cancer, or a medical condition that puts them at higher risk of severe illness from something like COVID-19. So if you just see someone wearing a mask, maybe consider asking them, ‘Hey, would you feel more comfortable if I wear a mask in this situation?’”
It’s also important to continue assessing your own comfort level. You don’t need a specific reason to have to wear a face mask; it’s fine to wear one if that’s your preference.
“You know, it's been a rough go over the last three years,” DeCamillis said. “We don't know what sort of medical condition someone has, or what kind of comfort level everyone has with either masking or unmasking. So I would just encourage folks, as we go through this next phase, to give each other grace and think about others from that perspective.”