Face masks required at Penn Medicine, Jefferson, Temple Health due to surge in COVID

Three of the Philadelphia region’s largest health systems are rolling back masking requirements for patients, staff and visitors to their hospitals and clinics to prevent the spread of COVID and other respiratory illnesses as the region sees a spike in seasonal illnesses.

Jefferson Health, Penn Medicine and Temple Health have updated their mask requirements in recent days, joining Main Line Health and Cooper University Health Care, which last week announced mask mandates at their facilities. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia also requires masks for patients and visitors in certain departments.

Many hospitals in the area eased their masking requirements last spring when the public health emergency over the COVID pandemic ended. But with cases of COVID and flu now on the rise again, epidemiologists from the region’s health systems are once again recommending masks. Here’s the latest on mask requirements at local healthcare facilities:

Jefferson’s Health

Starting Saturday, Jefferson Health began requiring staff in patient care areas to wear masks until at least Jan. 29. Patients are also required to wear masks in emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and other places where people gather, such as rehabilitation centers and skilled nursing facilities, officials said.

Elsewhere in Jefferson, patients with respiratory virus symptoms should wear a mask, and children with flu-like symptoms should be immediately masked and evaluated for measles exposure, the health system said. This is due to a recent measles outbreak involving a patient who visited Jefferson last month, which has also affected other facilities locally.

Penn Medicine

Penn Medicine has expanded its masking requirements for staff, who are now required to wear a mask when caring for patients and in areas where they may meet patients, including hallways and lobbies.

Penn has required since the start of the pandemic that patients and visitors over the age of 2 have masks in certain high-risk areas, such as emergency rooms, oncology and radiation oncology clinics, transplant clinics and infusion centers. The system will now require masks in emergency room waiting rooms as well, said Judith O’Donnell, director of infection prevention and control at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

Outside these high-risk areas, patients and visitors are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks. And patients who have tested positive for COVID in the past 10 days or who exhibit symptoms such as cough, fever, congestion or sore throat are required to wear a mask. Visitors with symptoms of COVID or who have tested positive in the past 10 days cannot enter any Penn Medicine facilities, the health system said on its website.

The health system is tracking the level of positive cases of COVID and influenza among its employees, patients and in the region to determine its masking policies and may expand masking requirements if cases continue to rise.

“We’re in the middle of things now,” O’Donnell said. “There’s a lot of COVID and even more flu.”

Temple health

Starting Wednesday, everyone entering the Temple Health building — staff, patients and visitors — will be required to wear a surgical mask.

“We must do everything we can to keep ourselves, our patients and our colleagues safe and healthy,” Temple officials said in an email to staff.

Face masks are required at Temple Hospitals, Outpatient Clinics and Community Health Services. The temple will provide masks at the hospital entrances. Officials did not say when the mask requirement might end, saying Temple epidemiologists will continue to monitor respiratory virus data in the area.

Is COVID on the rise again?

Influenza and COVID cases have been steadily increasing in recent weeks in the Philadelphia area and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Tracking individual cases of COVID is more difficult now that the public health emergency is over. Health departments are no longer required to track cases.

Philadelphia and some of its suburbs have detected an increase in the COVID virus through wastewater monitoring. Health officials are also looking for data on hospitalizations to gauge the severity of the spread in the region.

Pennsylvania saw 1,738 new hospitalizations for COVID during the week of Dec. 30, 2023, about a 40 percent increase from the previous week, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s slightly more than hospitalizations for COVID at the same time last year, but less than half the number of hospitalizations reported in January 2022, when the omicron variant caused a spike in cases.

In New Jersey, 1,318 people were admitted to the hospital in the week of Dec. 30, also about a 40 percent increase from the previous week.

Flu cases in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have also been on the rise over the past few weeks. Pennsylvania reported more than 15,000 cases during the week of December 30, 2023. More than 5% of people visiting Southeastern Pennsylvania emergency rooms in the last week of 2023. were diagnosed with the flu, compared with about 3 percent with COVID, according to state data.

New Jersey reported nearly 8,000 cases that week, with state health officials noting that emergency room and outpatient visits for flu-like symptoms also increased.

In addition, health officials in the Philadelphia area are monitoring six confirmed cases of measles. An outbreak of the vaccine-preventable condition, once nearly eradicated, began last month at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which also requires masks for all patients and visitors to its emergency rooms. Anyone with a fever or respiratory symptoms at all CHOP locations should also wear a mask, the hospital said on its website.

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