Some MultiCare hospitals in Washington will reinstate indoor masking policies this week, as winter weather ramps up and respiratory virus season worsens.
Starting Wednesday, face coverings will be required for all patients, visitors and staffers in MultiCare health care facilities in Thurston, Kitsap, King and Pierce counties, according to a statement from the hospital system.
The decision was prompted by recent increases in ER visits for influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, MultiCare said.
Nationally, rates of flu hospitalizations have started to pick up, with 11 states reporting high levels of flu-like illnesses as of last week, The Associated Press reported. RSV infections, meanwhile, have filled hospital ERs for the last month — and local and national health officials predict numbers could soon peak.
In Washington, flu activity remains low, according to the state Department of Health’s weekly influenza update, though three people have already died from the illness this season, and hospitals throughout the state have seen a rise in flu ER visits in the past several weeks.
The state has also recorded a jump in RSV infections in the past month.
Within the MultiCare system, indoor masking mandates will be in place until a facility can go two weeks without triggering any of the masking criteria developed by Northwest Healthcare Response Network, a coalition of health care systems in Washington, the hospital said.
According to the network, which put together masking guidelines for this year’s respiratory virus season, some criteria include: if COVID-19 admissions exceed 10 per 100,000 people; if regional flu ER visits exceed 1% of total visits; and if regional RSV ER visits exceed 0.3% of total visits.
In King County, about 1.12% of ER patients had the flu as of late November, while 1.14% of ER patients were sick with RSV, both results of recent increases, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.
“Crossing the transmission alert is a statistical way to predict the start of the seasonal epidemic for these respiratory viruses,” King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin posted on the social media platform X last week. “For this reason it’s a very good time to get vaccinated [for flu and COVID].”
Other hospitals in the Puget Sound area have also brought back their indoor mask mandates recently, including UW Medicine, which late last month started again requiring all health care staffers to mask up in patient care spaces. Seattle Children’s also now requires patients, families and visitors to wear a face covering in clinical areas.
Masking will be required in MultiCare’s patient care areas, like check-in areas and exam rooms, but not in elevators, gift shops, cafeterias, conference rooms or other more public spaces.
The return of mask mandates this cold and flu season is a requirement Washingtonians have not seen since April, when the state lifted mandates for health care and correctional facilities. The state Department of Health dropped the mandate for most other indoor, public spaces in March 2022 when the surge in omicron cases started to subside.