Local hospitals lifting requirement for visitors to wear masks; COVID, RSV, flu cases decrease

File photo of "Masks required" sign outside Cedar City Hospital, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 12, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — A week from this Wednesday, a visitor to St. George Regional Hospital or Cedar City Hospital will be able to do something they haven’t been able to do since April 20, 2020: Not wear a mask.

In a file photo, Sheri Gali, a same-day surgery educator at the hospital, shows off her gratitude as residents drop off homemade masks at the 400 East Campus of what was then called Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George, Utah, May 30, 2020 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The requirement to wear masks at Intermountain Health hospitals, which along with St. George and Cedar City also includes Garfield Memorial Hospital in Panguitch, will become optional on March 15. 

The chief clinical officer for Intermountain Health said in the statement the move is in response to the COVID/respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)/influenza season coming to an end and the continuing drop of COVID infections overall.   

“As respiratory infection season comes to an end, we expect to see a continued reduction of RSV, COVID-19 and other flu-related cases, allowing for the easing of Intermountain’s masking policy,” Dr. J.P. Valin said. “Masks were a vital component in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections and other respiratory illnesses not only for our patients but also for our caregivers.”

The signs requiring masks as a person enters the lobby at the St. George and Cedar City hospitals will come down, replaced by new signs noting that masks are still an option, especially for those at high-risk for infection. 

The move to optional face coverings also will apply to hospital staff, though they will still be mandatory for doctors, nurses and other staff in operating rooms, areas of respiratory isolation or other clinical areas as was the case before the pandemic and in hospitals since the early 19th century

“I’m grateful to our caregivers and those assisting our patients for the commitment they have exhibited during the past three years to always put the safety of our patients and their colleagues first and foremost,” Mandy Richards,  Intermountain’s chief nursing officer, said in a statement.

After a brief spike in mid-December into early January, the amount of the virus that has been found in St. George and Cedar City sewage check has remained at a steady low, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.  

The number of those hospitalized for COVID has also been in the single digits in that time, and there have been less than five COVID-related deaths thus far locally in 2023, with none reported in nearly a month, according to data from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. 

Since the first person from Southern Utah was infected with COVID-19 in February 2020, there have been 708 people locally who have died of the disease and more than 3,600 people hospitalized, according to the state health department.  

File photo of a sign describing face coverings required for those entering what was then known as Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George, Utah, May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Masks were first required for visitors at the hospital about a month after the first reported case of COVID-19 originating in Utah when it was still known as Dixie Regional Medical Center. 

There wasn’t a requirement in the month before that as there were initial concerns about the low supply of surgical masks at the start of the pandemic. Also, like everything else about the then-new disease, there was uncertainty about the effectiveness of such masks

Since then, it was determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks were effective in preventing the spread of the disease by capturing water droplets containing the virus that causes COVID. The most extensive CDC study based on around 29,000 participants determined that during the pandemic, the chance of contracting COVID-19 was reduced by 56% with a homemade cloth mask, 66% by a surgical mask and 83% by an N95 mask.

The CDC also says extensive mask-wearing was the reason for the large reduction in influenza, RSV and other respiratory diseases in 2020 and 2021.  

But the issue of masks proved to be the source of debate and protest during the pandemic in Southern Utah, especially rules requiring their use. One of the larger protests in St. George in September 2020 gained national attention.  

Critics of masks as well as some medical experts also say this winter’s high rate of RSV and influenza – especially among children – was because extensive use of masks reduced natural exposure to such viruses preventing the build-up of natural immunity.

They have also pointed to a recent study review by the Cochrane Library that questioned the certainty of research into mask effectiveness against disease and said it is inconclusive whether wearing a mask makes any difference in stopping viruses that ride on water droplets. 

Critics of that study in published reports say it was mostly based on trials conducted of non-COVID-related viruses before the start of the pandemic in 2020. The Cochrane study said it is based on 78 controlled trials, 72 of which were before the first appearance of the virus that causes COVID-19, and most of those were of those who wore masks only part of the time.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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