I’m worried about going to hospitals without a mask

For some people, the pandemic is not over

CLARIFICATION: After this op-ed was completed for publication, Mass General Brigham updated its masking FAQs site to remove the answer prohibiting patients from asking their medical care team to wear masks. The new language says: “At this time, based on this guidance, universal masking is no longer medically necessarily to protect patients from COVID-19. There are circumstances when masking is an appropriate medical intervention. In those circumstances, caregivers and/or patients will continue to mask, per our policies. Patients can ask, but providers determine when and if masking in a particular situation is clinically necessary.” The previous language referenced in this commentary can be found via an archived version of the page.

I RECEIVED an email recently  notifying me that MassGeneral Brigham hospitals will no longer require masking or COVID-19 symptom screening for patients or visitors entering any of their hospitals, clinics, or other facilities. I knew this announcement would be coming as soon as the Biden administration announced the impending end of the public health emergency order, but I hoped that Boston hospitals, ranked among the best in the country, would buck the trend and elect to protect their disabled and immunocompromised patients instead, especially given that multiple studies have shown that universal masking is more effective than one-way masking at reducing COVID transmission.

To make matters worse, the hospital masking FAQs website includes the question: “I’d be more comfortable if my doctor, nurse, or other care provider wore a mask. Can I ask them to?” The site’s answer: “No. You cannot ask staff members to wear a mask because our policies no longer require it.”

We know that those most at risk of dying from COVID are disproportionately disabled people, immunocompromised people, and elders: the very people who most often require regular visits to hospitals and clinics. As a disabled patient, I’m disappointed and frightened that the hospitals where I and so many others receive life-preserving care are willing to risk our lives to infection. Those hospitals have even removed our option to advocate for our own health by asking our care team to wear masks.

I have Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that impacts many different body systems. For me, the primary concerns have been my heart, blood vessels, and lungs – all of which put me at high risk with COVID-19, too. About a month ago, I saw my cardiologist, who works out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for a routine check-up. Unexpectedly, my echocardiogram indicated severe stenosis in my mitral valve, which I had replaced via open heart surgery in 2019. It’s unclear whether I’ll need another surgery soon, but next steps will inescapably include at least another half dozen specialist appointments in the upcoming months.

The same day I received this news about my own health, I drove to Peabody to take my 73-year-old father to the Mass General Cancer Center for appointments with an oncology team. He had just been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and we were meeting his doctors to discuss a treatment plan. He has now begun chemotherapy and is expected to require at least 9 months of treatment that will wreck his immune system and involve frequent trips to the clinic.

It’s not an option for me or my father to avoid hospitals once masking is lifted on May 12. We shouldn’t have to fear that the places we go to protect and recover our health might be the very places that expose us to a virus that could kill us.

While hospitals drop all protections meant to prevent viral spread, CDC data – likely underestimated due to unreported at-home testing – shows that there are still about 2,000 cases, 200 deaths, and 1,500 people hospitalized for COVID-19 weekly. COVID remains one of the leading causes of death in the US. Recent estimates suggest that almost half (45 percent) of those who had the virus developed long COVID, meaning they had at least one unresolved symptom four months after first testing positive.

The pandemic isn’t over. Not for disabled people, immunocompromised people, elders, or our families and loved ones. Not for the millions of people who have lost a loved one to COVID. Not for the millions who have developed long COVID and continue to struggle with physical and psychological symptoms, months or years after having the virus.

Meet the Author

Christine Mitchell

Public health researcher, Resident of Everett
It is worth celebrating that hospitalization and death rates are currently on the lower end of where they’ve been for the last three years. It is true that vaccination and treatment have been effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths. But they’re not always easily accessible, unlike the boxes of masks that have been at every hospital entrance for the last three years. The simple act of continuing masking policies in medical facilities will save lives. Is that not what hospitals pledge to do? That email in my inbox seems to indicate otherwise.

Christine Mitchell is a public health researcher, organizer, and advocate living in Everett, MA.