LGH front - 1/3/2022

As of Jan. 3, 2022, unvaccinated patients continue to comprise nearly 4 in 5 of Lancaster General Hospital's total COVID-19 patients and all but a handful of its COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

THE ISSUE: “Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health officials updated visitation guidelines for its hospitals, including the requirement of a ‘medical-grade mask’ for anyone entering the hospital,” LNP | LancasterOnline.com reports. The new requirement comes as Lancaster General Health officials are considering whether to submit a formal request for federal assistance because of precipitously rising COVID-19 hospitalizations. And it comes as the Lancaster General Health staff is “overwhelmed, tired and frustrated,” said chief clinical officer Dr. Michael Ripchinski. Cloth masks, masks with exhalation valves, gaiters, bandanas and gas masks are now prohibited in Lancaster General Health hospitals and facilities. Acceptable “medical-grade masks” include surgical or procedural masks, N95 masks and KN95 masks.

Since this deadly pandemic began nearly two years ago, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has adapted to its hosts and spawned pernicious variants such as delta and omicron.

So, too, must we keep adapting to best protect ourselves against the virus.

The scientifically proven importance of masking up to help stop the spread of COVID-19, regrettably, has been a partisan flashpoint in the United States since the pandemic began. Worse, our endless (and frustratingly unnecessary) public pitched battles over masking have robbed us of time we should have been spending on questions such as “What kind of masks should we be wearing?”

Early in the pandemic, after some initial debate about the merits of masking, the guidance from federal health officials was for people to wear masks in public. We cheered the stories of local residents sewing cloth masks in their homes and distributing them to those who needed them.

Then came the moment when public health officials told us that simple cloth masks — while certainly far better than nothing — were insufficient to the task of protecting us and those around us.

“In the scrambling for information and tools in early days of the pandemic, it was acceptable to just say any cloth mask will do because it’s true. Any face covering is better than none,” Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard University, wrote in a Jan. 26, 2021, op-ed for The Washington Post. “But we’ve learned so much since then, and we need to adjust our strategy.”

In February 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its masking guidance with compelling research indicating that double-masking is more effective than wearing a single mask.

U.S. researchers founded that a single cloth mask blocked about 40% of the coronavirus-sized particles coming toward a person’s mouth. But, crucially, they found that when a cloth mask was worn on top of a surgical mask, about 80% of such particles were blocked.

Last February, we urged people to consider embracing the science from the CDC and “double up on your masking when you’re going to be around others from outside your immediate household.” That was 11 months ago, and the pandemic continues to bring grief. There are myriad reasons for that, including an ongoing resistance to masking and vaccination and the spread of disinformation on social media.

Thankfully, one thing we still have personal control over is the kind of masks we choose to wear in public. And we think people should make a strategic adjustment in the interest of public health and stop wearing cloth masks in public, instead opting for medical-grade masks.

We must do better because COVID-19 is again running rampant in Lancaster County and across the nation. We are facing dangerous weeks ahead; health care workers are being pushed — again — to their breaking point and hospitals are losing their capacity to handle routine and emergency medical situations.

“Over the next two weeks it will really be a critical time for all of us,” Lancaster General Health’s Ripchinski told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole Brambila this week.

It’s so critical, in fact, that the county’s largest health system is weighing that request for federal help in staffing its facilities.

On Thursday, Lancaster General Health reported that it had 126 COVID-19 patients, including 17 on ventilators. (About 78% of those hospitalized were unvaccinated, the hospital reported. Please get fully vaccinated and, if you are eligible, get boosted.)

Overall, Lancaster County and Pennsylvania both set new pandemic records Thursday for the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health. The county’s three hospitals had a total of 197 COVID-19 patients, beating the previous record of 193 set on Monday and tied on Wednesday, LNP | LancasterOnline reported.

In light of all this, we find it to be entirely appropriate for Lancaster General Health to require medical-grade masks to be worn by anyone entering the hospital.

And, given the latest scientific research, we strongly urge everyone to stow those cloth masks and wear medical-grade masks when out in public or around people whose vaccination or infection status is unknown.

“Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,” Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech with expertise in airborne transmission of viruses, told NPR last month.

Health experts are recommending that people use three-ply surgical masks, KN95 masks or N95 masks, all of which offer more protection against the highly transmissible omicron variant, USA Today’s Gabriela Miranda wrote this week.

Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Medicine, explained to USA Today that medical-grade masks are made from material with an electrostatic charge that helps to prevent wearers from inhaling coronavirus-sized particles. N95 masks, in particular, block 99% of respiratory droplets, according to a Duke University study.

But these masks must be bought. They can’t be made or assembled at home by good Samaritans. That leads us to some serious concerns about their availability to low-income families and individuals.

Disposable medical-grade masks can be bought in bulk for about 50 cents to $3 per mask, in most cases. A helpful place to browse for and buy N95 masks is projectn95.org, the website of a national nonprofit that serves as a national clearinghouse for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests.

We’re glad that Lancaster General Health states that, as part of its new policy for visitors, those who do not have a medical-grade mask will be provided with one.

But we hope that the federal government can step up and provide easy access to free medical-grade masks for those who need them but cannot afford them. It must be part of modifying our strategies against an insidious virus that will surely keep modifying itself in an attempt to keep this terrible pandemic going. 

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