More than nine million Americans now live in an area where mask mandates have returned to local hospitals — amid concerns more health facilities could bring back the measures.
At least seven hospital systems have recently brought back face mask policies in areas of New York, California and New Jersey.
Most recently on Monday, New Jersey’s largest hospital system — RWJBarnabas Health — became the latest to bring back the measure for patients, visitors and staff, alongside social distancing, citing concerns over rising COVID-19 cases.
But data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently shows hospitalizations and cases are dropping nationwide.
Several schools have also brought back face masks in classrooms and earlier this year one in Kentucky switched to remote learning citing a wave of sick children.
Studies have failed to show definitively that masks prevent Covid infections — despite millions of Americans being forced to abide by mandates. But experts still say it is advisable to wear them in hospitals, saying staff often come to work sick.
Despite shifts in some hospital systems, there is little evidence mandates will come back nationwide with Dr Anthony Fauci — the White House’s former Covid chief medical officer — all but ruling it out last month.
On Monday, New Jersey’s largest hospital system — RWJBarnabas Health — (one of its hospitals pictured above) became the latest to bring back mask mandates, alongside social distancing, citing concerns over rising cases (pictured above)
Pictured above is Lee County Elementary School in Beattyville, Kentucky. The school went back to remote learning in late August because so many children were out sick with Covid. It has now returned to classrooms
Dr Anthony Fauci (left) said that he would be ‘extremely surprised’ if the US would bring back nationwide face mask mandates in crowded areas. Dr Thomas Moore (right), an infectious disease expert at Kansas University, said masks did work as long as they were worn properly
The new mandates in the RWJBarnabas health system, which serves New Jersey residents in all parts of the state, will affect the network’s 12 hospitals — which see nearly three million patients a year and are staffed by 37,000 medics.
A spokesman for the network said: ‘This decision was made due to an increase in Covid prevalence in these communities.
‘The health and safety of our team members and patients has always been and continues to be our number one priority.’
RWJ Barnabas is the largest of 12 health systems in New Jersey and made the decision days after Hackensack Meridian Health, also in the state, said it was bringing back face masks.
Official data shows Covid hospitalizations in the state are currently trending downward, with 521 patients currently hospitalized compared to 572 seven days beforehand.
The numbers remain well below the state’s 2023 peak of nearly 1,800 Covid patients in January.
Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital, in Plattsburgh, New York, also just recently returned to masking after 50 of its employees were out sick with Covid and hospital admissions for Covid patients were rising.
Other healthcare facilities that have re-imposed mask mandates include Kaiser Permanente’s facilities in Santa Rosa, California, which serves a county of 500,000 people. It reinstated its policies in late August.
And two hospitals in Syracuse, New York, brought back mask mandates on their units on August 17 in response to rising cases.
While facilities may be reinstating masking in the hopes to curb local spread of the virus, doctors have warned that in order for masks to work they must be worn correctly, covering the nose and mouth.
But, even then, some studies suggest wearing face coverings does not head off infections — while they can do harm to communication and education, especially in children.
One of the most comprehensive meta-analyses of face coverings carried out to date and published in February 2023 found masks made ‘little to no difference’ to Covid infection and death rates.
Carried out by the Cochrane Institute, the ‘gold standard’ of evidence-based reviews, the researchers found they cut the risk of catching ‘Covid or flu-like illness’ by just five percent — a number so low it may not be statistically significant.
The above graph shows Covid hospitalizations by week in the US
Covid deaths are still rising, but this is a lagging indicator because of the amount of time taken to register a Covid fatality
The researchers said harms caused by masks — including hampering children’s schooling — were poorly measured in the studies, meaning any small benefit on infection rates may be outweighed.
The meta-analysis was based on 78 global studies involving more than a million people.
But earlier this year experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) urged for masking to continue in healthcare settings to protect patients.
They said the request was because medical workers are notorious for working while sick and asymptomatic individuals can still transmit viruses.
Dr Thomas Moore, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Kansas, told DailyMail.com evidence suggests masks do help to prevent infections as long as they are worn appropriately and kept on.
He said most masks worked well at preventing Covid infections, by catching virus-laced droplets in their material, but the hospital grade N95 mask was best for preventing infections.
These newest mandates come after Dr Fauci said last month nationwide face mask mandates would not return this winter even if there was a significant rise in Covid case.
The former White House chief medical adviser said he would be ‘extremely surprised’ if they were reinstated.
But he could not promise masks would not be ‘recommended’ again.
Asked whether mask mandates would return on ABC ‘This Week’, Dr Fauci said: ‘No, I don’t see that in the future at all.
‘I can see that if we get a significant uptick in cases that you may see the recommendation that masks be used under certain circumstances and indoor crowded settings.
‘But I don’t see there being, certainly not federal mandates — I would be extremely surprised if we would see that.’
The Covid wave from last month — which sparked alarm — already appears to be receding.
Official data showed there were 19,079 Covid hospital admissions nationwide over the week ending September 23, down three percent from the previous week.
The number was also well-below this year’s peak of 44,400 admissions recorded in January.
The positivity rate — proportion of Covid tests that detect the virus — is also down one percent in a week, dropping to 11.6 percent positivity in the week ending September 23.
Fatalities were also down to 607 during the same week from 1,005 the week prior.