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Carney issues mask mandate as hospitals triage

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Gov. John Carney announced Monday that he was re-enacting an indoor mask mandate for most spaces in light for the surge of COVID-19 cases in Delaware. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JASON MINTO/GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

WILMINGTON – Gov. John Carney signed a Monday order requiring that masks once again be worn in indoor public settings, including convenience stores, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants, bars, hair salons, malls, and casinos.

The renewal of a mask mandate, set to go into effect at 8 a.m. Tuesday, came just after virtually every health care system in Delaware reported enacting “crisis standards of care,” essentially triaging the direst cases as staffing and resources are stretched beyond capacity due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“The health care system is under unprecedented strain. Never have there been this many people in our community who need hospitalization, emergency care and other health care services,” said Dr. Janice Nevin, president and CEO of ChristianaCare, the state’s largest health system, in a statement. “We have taken this step to implement crisis standards of care so that our caregivers have the flexibility and decision-making tools they need in order to deliver care to patients with the highest need at this time when the demand exceeds all available resources.”

Like the prior mask mandate at the outset of the pandemic, masks are not required outdoors or while eating or drinking in restaurants and bars. Differing from the original order after legal challenges though, churches and other houses of worship are exempted from the latest mask requirement.  

The new mandate comes as part of the state of emergency order that went into effect Jan. 3, intended to allow Carney to call National Guard members to help in the health care response. The renewed mask rules come about eight months since they were lifted at the recommendation of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Carney also ​announced Monday that the mask requirements in K-12 public and private schools and child care facilities, which had been set to expire in early February, will be extended in order to ensure instruction continues without interruption. The governor also eased regulations to allow and incentivize recently-retired educators to return to the classroom as substitute teachers.

Carney deployed 70 more members of the Delaware National Guard to assist with non-clinical operations inside Delaware hospitals statewide. In total, more than 300 guardsmen are assisting with COVID-19 response efforts, including support at vaccination and testing locations, help with PPE distribution, and hospital assistance. Roughly 110 members, separate from the 70 members deployed on Monday, are training to serve as certified nursing assistants (CNAs) in health care settings statewide to take pressure off hospital systems. 

Calling the situation at Delaware hospitals a “crisis-level situation,” Carney said in a statement announcing the measures, “We need all Delawareans in the fight as we face this winter surge of COVID-19 to make sure our hospitals are not overrun,”

“I know we’re all exhausted by this pandemic. But at the level of hospitalizations we’re seeing, Delawareans who need emergency care might not be able to get it. That’s just a fact. It’s time for everyone to pitch in and do what works,” he added. “Wear your mask indoors. Avoid gatherings or expect to get and spread COVID. Get your vaccine and, if eligible, get boosted. That’s how we’ll get through this surge without endangering more lives.” 

Joining ChristianaCare on Monday in enacting crisis standards of care, protocols rarely utilized outside of natural disasters or mass casualty events, were Bayhealth, TidalHealth Nanticoke, and Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic’s Saint Francis Hospital. Notably, Lewes-based Beebe Healthcare and Wilmington-based Nemours Children’s Health didn’t sign onto the joint statement.

The health care systems noted that they have met patients’ needs for nearly two years during the pandemic and have lately postponed surgeries and procedures, repurposed space within facilities, and redirected staff and available resources, but the surge of cases is quickening.

ChristianaCare has been operating at over 100% capacity in its hospitals, emergency departments, urgent care centers and practices for weeks, officials said. Approximately 40% of all patients at its three hospitals are COVID-positive. The vast majority of these COVID-19 patients are symptomatic and were admitted because of COVID or require a higher level of care because of the impact of COVID on their health.

While breakthrough cases of vaccinated patients are increasing amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, unvaccinated patients continue to be those driving the recent surge of cases. Hospitalizations are up 75% in just the last two weeks, with a record 784 hospitalized as of Jan. 8, of which 67 were in critical condition.

“We need everyone to understand that while an individual can get COVID and feel bad for a few days or suffer mild-to-moderate symptoms and be OK, there are still many, many people who are becoming seriously ill and dying from this disease,” said Dr. Ken Silverstein, chief physician executive at ChristianaCare, in a statement.

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