2023 MARCH 28, TUESDAY
Memorial Community Hospital & Health System (MCH) in Washington County, Nebraska, made a significant change to its COVID-19 masking policy, transitioning from mandatory to optional masking for staff and patients. Infection Preventionist and Quality Improvement Specialist, Kaylee Smith, BSN RN, provided an in-depth explanation of the factors that influenced this decision, highlighting the impact of effective vaccines, oral and IV medications, consistently low COVID-19 positivity rates, and the decreasing number of cases in the area.
In a candid interview, Kaylee Smith shared, “COVID will likely be with us for the foreseeable future. But we are in a much better position than when the virus first emerged and while we were still learning about it. We now have safe and effective vaccines that prevent serious illness and death. We also have oral medications available to treat those who are infected. There are IV medications available for people who cannot take the oral medications or who have a more severe case of COVID. All of these factors played into our decision to discontinue masking at Memorial Community Hospital.”
Addressing the impact of vaccination rates and recent COVID-19 case trends on the decision to update the masking policy, Smith stated, “Vaccination rates have not changed much. But the positivity rate and number of cases in Washington County have been consistently low. We have seen a major decrease in the number of COVID-positive patients coming through our facility over the last several months.”
MCH’s decision to make masks optional aligns with the practices of major Nebraska health systems and tertiary medical centers, whose leadership MCH has been following throughout the pandemic. Smith explained, “The decision to discontinue masking has been made following the leadership of the leading Nebraska health systems and tertiary medical centers.”
Smith also shared the unique considerations and challenges specific to Washington County that influenced the decision to update the masking policy. “Today we know more and we have vaccines that are extremely safe and effective in preventing serious disease and death. We now have oral medications that help prevent the progression of disease. We are better suited to treat patients with COVID-19, and they are consuming less intensive care resources. We are also experiencing less employee absenteeism due to COVID-19 infection.”
The updated masking policy has been well-received by both staff and patients at MCH. Smith detailed the positive feedback, “The majority of feedback from patients and staff has been positive. It has been a long time since we have seen each other’s smiles. We had an extra special St. Patty’s Day with the announcement of optional masking; you could certainly feel the excitement in the building!” She also emphasized that staff would continue to wear masks during patient contact if requested for added comfort.
Despite the change in masking policy, MCH will still require individuals experiencing viral respiratory symptoms to wear a mask. Smith clarified, “The registration staff will provide one to the patient or they may grab one when they come in the door. This was our policy before the pandemic during flu and respiratory season, and we will continue this policy into the future.”
To ensure the safety of immunocompromised patients, Smith explained that the hospital encourages these patients to continue wearing masks and reassured that the facility has not changed any cleaning practices. MCH has maintained stringent cleaning practices, including frequent disinfection of surfaces with COVID-rated cleaners, the addition of UV treatment to air handler intakes, and the use of UV light cleaning systems. The hospital has also replaced soft flooring with hard flooring in patient treatment areas for easier cleaning and disinfection.
The hospital’s decision to update the masking policy was made in coordination with other healthcare facilities and public health authorities in Washington County, such as Boys Town, Bryan Health, CHI Health, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, Madonna, Methodist Health System, and
Nebraska Medicine. This collaboration ensures a unified approach to COVID-19 safety measures across the region.
In conclusion, Smith emphasized MCH’s commitment to closely monitor the ongoing COVID-19 situation in Washington County and make any necessary adjustments to its masking policy as the situation evolves. “We will always closely monitor the COVID-19 situation as well as any new or emerging threats to our patients, employees, and visitors. The discontinuation of masking does not mean that the threat of COVID is 100% gone. If any variants emerge that are causing a surge in our community, we will pull our Incident Command team together and make masking adjustments as necessary. Our greatest priority is the safety of everyone that comes to our facilities.”
This in-depth look at MCH’s decision to update its masking policy showcases the hospital’s dedication to providing the safest possible environment for staff, patients, and visitors. By taking into account the latest scientific developments, regional trends, and public health recommendations, MCH continues to be a leader in healthcare and infection prevention.
MCH’s official press release is below:
For Immediate Release
From: Boys Town, Bryan Health, CHI Health, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, Madonna, Methodist Health System, Nebraska Medicine
Media contact: Please contact media relations teams at specific health systems or medical centers
Date: March 27, 2023
Masking requirements to be updated at leading Nebraska
health systems and medical centers by April 3, 2023
For three years our health systems, medical centers and clinics have coordinated the care for hundreds of thousands of people from across the region who contracted COVID-19. We also participated in regional consortiums and treated patients from surrounding states. Collegiality and leaning on the experience and capacity of each organization was vital during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues today.
The virus causing COVID-19 and the treatment of patients experiencing complications from prior COVID-19 infection are still with us and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, we are now in a much different place.
We know more and we have vaccines that are extremely safe and effective in preventing serious disease and death. We now have oral medications that help prevent progression of disease. We are better suited to treat patients with COVID-19 and they are consuming less intensive care resources. We are also experiencing less employee absenteeism due to COVID-19 infection.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to end the Public Health Emergency for COVID-19 on May 11, 2023. This change in status will impact U.S. health care policies and practices for many COVID-19 related services. By April 3, 2023, wearing masks will be optional in most areas of all of our health systems, medical centers and clinics. CHI Health lifted masking requirements on March 20.
Each of our health systems and medical centers have different capabilities and expertise for treating complex health conditions and diverse patient populations, so patients can expect some variation. For instance, masking requirements will remain in effect on units or areas that necessitated wearing of masks and protective equipment prior to the pandemic. We will also respect requests of our patients, and our teams will wear a mask if requested.
We ask for your understanding if conditions change and we need to reinstate preventative and required protective measures. We advise everyone to stay up to date on COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations and boosters.
The immense challenges everyone faced over the last three years was met through collaborations – across health systems, and with the public. Collectively, we saved countless lives, prevented and treated severe illness, and we witnessed incredible compassion from our teams that cared for patients and families. We thank and acknowledge the communities we serve for supporting us and doing what they could to inform the public and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.