CDC offers updated advice for healthcare facilities' masking policies post-public health emergency

Even as the COVID-19 public health emergency winds down, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending healthcare facilities put serious thought into whether broader use of face masking is appropriate.

In a May 8 update to its COVID-19 infection prevention and control guidelines, the CDC warned that hospitals and other healthcare facilities will no longer be able to rely on the agency’s Community Transmission surveillance tool. Data needed to publish the local-level metric will no longer be sent to the CDC due to the end of the PHE on Thursday, CDC explained.

However, “source control remains an important intervention during periods of higher respiratory virus transmission,” CDC wrote. “Without the Community Transmission metric, healthcare facilities should identify local metrics that could reflect increasing community respiratory viral activity to determine when broader use of source control in the facility might be warranted.”

Source control, such as “use of well-fitting masks,” is a key strategy for preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, CDC wrote, and recommendations for healthcare workers have long been described by the agency for standard precautions, such as when the worker is sick and has symptoms such as coughing.

Expanding mask use more broadly has a greater benefit and should still be considered when caring for patients at a higher risk for severe outcomes if infected by a respiratory virus as well as “during periods of high respiratory virus transmission in the community,” the agency wrote.

For the former consideration, the CDC encouraged healthcare facilities to tier infection prevention measures based on the patient populations being served—e.g., implementing masking for those providing care in a cancer clinic or transplant unit. Organizations can also seek input from patient groups and staff on whether such measures would be supported, CDC said, and should consider whether to coordinate practices with other facilities within their jurisdiction that may share patients.

As for determining local respiratory virus activity following the loss of the Community Transmission resource, CDC said it is currently “in the early stages” of developing new metrics for facilities to consult.

In the meantime, healthcare facilities “might consider recommending masking during the typical respiratory virus season (approximately October-April),” CDC wrote.

They should also review the more general metrics regarding community respiratory virus incidence—such as the Respiratory Virus Hospitalization Surveillance Network (RESP-NET) interactive dashboard, data from the National Emergency Department Visits for COVID-19, Influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, and state-level outpatient visits captured through ILINet—when available for their jurisdictions, CDC wrote.

“However, even when masking is not required by the facility, individuals should continue using a mask or respirator based on personal preference, informed by their perceived level of risk for infection based on their recent activities (e.g., attending crowded indoor gatherings with poor ventilation) and their potential for developing severe disease if they are exposed,” the CDC wrote.

The CDC’s guidance update landed about a week after the White House announced it will be ending COVID-19 vaccination requirements for Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services-certified facilities. The administration’s decision to officially end the PHE on Thursday also heralded far-reaching changes to certain coverage waivers and flexibilities, COVID-19 testing coverage and, as mentioned earlier, data reporting and surveillance.