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Sussex hospitals waive mask policies

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Delaware mask hospital policy

All Sussex County hospitals have now waived their required mask policies for the public, but ChristianaCare has retained its policy. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CDC

All three Sussex County hospitals have now waived their mask policies for most patients and visitors, providing yet another signal that the COVID-19 pandemic has eased.

Within the last month, all three major hospital systems in Sussex County – Beebe Healthcare, Bayhealth and TidalHealth – have made their mask policies largely optional for the public.

Beebe was the last to make the move, dropping the requirement on Wednesday.

“The change to optional masking reflects the end of Beebe’s respiratory season, and current conditions at this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic involving low spread, immunity, and wide access to testing and treatments,” said Dr. Bill Chasanov, chief population health officer at the health system. “Beebe leadership will continue to monitor the situation to determine whether team members, medical staff or others will need to wear masks again for the safety of our team and community.”

Beebe patients and visitors who show signs of respiratory illness will be required to wear a mask and one will be provided. In some circumstances, visitors may not be permitted if they are unwell.

Bayhealth changed its guidelines on March 28 due to a “decrease of COVID-19 rates in our community and the decline in serious COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization,” reported Kalee Sexton, a spokesperson for the health system.

“Our masking and visitation policies have been established to balance preventing the spread of current contagious illnesses with the individualized needs of our patients. The health and safety of all our community members remains our highest priority,” she added.

TidalHealth made the move at its Seaford and Salisbury, Md., hospitals about two weeks ago, only requiring masks in COVID-positive patient rooms and other areas that may have temporary restrictions, said Roger Follebout, the communications director for the health system.

“It’s mask optional, but we are still encouraging anyone feeling ill or displaying any upper respiratory conditions to please not visit,” he added.

Notably, ChristianaCare, the largest health system in Delaware that primarily has hospitals and offices in New Castle County, has not waived its mask requirement as of this week. Visitors to patient care and treatment areas are still required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, but masks can be removed in open public areas like lobbies, cafeterias, elevators and waiting rooms outside of patient units.

Hospitals were virtually the last remaining public place where masking is required nearly three years after the outbreak of COVID-19, and their removal comes amid changing official stances on the state of the pandemic today.

Gov. John Carney announced recently that he intends to let the state’s public health emergency order expire on May 11, coinciding with when President Joe Biden will end the federal order.

“Consistent with the ending of the federal public health emergency, and with Delaware’s continued progress in moving beyond COVID-19, we’ll plan to end our public health order this May,” Carney said in a statement announcing the decision. “We will keep working with businesses and the health care industry as we finalize this transition. Thank you to each and every Delawarean who helped us get to where we are today.” 

As of April 4, the state has a rolling seven-day average of 32 new COVID cases and 60 people were hospitalized with the virus around the state. Deaths from COVID have dropped dramatically as vaccinations have increased and weaker variants have come to the forefront, but still 107 people have died from the virus in the first four months of 2023, according to state data.

Unlike state of emergency orders, which give the governor powers to order compliance for new mandates with a threat of criminal enforcement, the public health emergency order largely allowed the state and medical providers to continue COVID-19 vaccination and testing programs. It waived regulations aimed at health insurance and staffing and bed ratios related to the care of COVID patients.

It also ensured that the state stayed in compliance with federal regulations so that it was eligible to receive federal funding for COVID response. That notably included enhanced Medicaid enrollment through the pandemic that will now begin to wind down, seeing tens of thousands of Delawareans lose public health care assistance.

The end of the federal public health emergency order will also end the blanket insurance coverage of COVID tests, resulting in many insurers to now begin charging plan members for the tests. The state has also closed its Curative testing sites, signaling a lessening demand for COVID testing.

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