Now that spring is here and COVID-19 infection rates remain relatively low in the area, some area health systems are relaxing rules requiring masks and limiting patient visitors.
Beginning Monday, Advocate locations — including Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Lake View — will no longer limit the number of patient visitors or require face masks under most circumstances.
Franciscan Health facilities in Indiana will also go mask-optional on Monday, and its hospital in suburban Olympia Fields will follow suit April 3.
Dr. Robert Citronberg, an Advocate infectious disease expert, described the masking policy change as a “really big step,” noting that masks have been required since the start of the pandemic.
“With declining rates of community transmission of COVID in all the counties in Illinois in which we serve patients, we are safely able to remove that masking requirement,” he told reporters late last week. “This is in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance and other state and federal regulations too.”
He said allowing more visitors could help the healing process.
“We realize and recognize how important it is for patients to have visitors, and it certainly contributes to recovery in the hospital and then after they leave the hospital,” Citronberg said.
The changes on visitation don’t apply to general pediatric and pediatric intensive care settings, which will continue to allow only two visitors at a time, the health care system said. And people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus still must wait 10 days before visiting a patient, the health care system said.
In addition, masking will continue to be required for visitors of patients in “transmission-based isolation,” including patients who are COVID-19 positive.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order in October dropping a requirement that health care facilities require masking. But most hospitals have kept masking rules in place and have been some of the last public places to require them.
The Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday said 12 counties are at medium rate of transmission, while all others, including all Chicago-area counties, remain “low.” In the last week, Illinois reported 8,560 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, and 39 deaths.
Both Advocate and Franciscan said they could return to stricter masking rules if COVID resurges.
In Wisconsin, where transmission rates remain higher, Advocate is keeping masking requirements at its hospitals, Citronberg said.
The coming changes got mixed reviews from Advocate clients.
“It’s too soon because COVID is still out here,” said Robert Kennedy, 83, who was visiting Illinois Masonic on Friday.
Kennedy, of Lincoln Park, was wearing a mask, and he said he has no plans to change that practice.
“I’m so accustomed to it, it doesn’t bother me at all. As a matter of fact, it would be hard for me to stop,” he said.
Kiara Nix, 34, who is pregnant, said she, too, plans to keep wearing her mask for clinic visits.
“There are a lot of things that can happen with women who are pregnant,” said Nix, who lives on the Near West Side. “You don’t want to basically catch anything that’s coming your way.”
Lizeth Ramos, 30, who lives in Bucktown and is nine months pregnant, wasn’t wearing a mask as she visited the hospital last week. She is fully vaccinated, and she said she has no problem with people who don’t wear masks — even though she did have COVID-19 while pregnant.
“I understand the importance of them,” said Ramos. But “it’s been a struggle to wear the mask being nine months pregnant — the shortness of breath.”
Others who work in health care weren’t sure it was time to stop requiring masks.
Dr. Lucy Fox, who did her residency at Illinois Masonic and is now a primary care doctor in the Rush system, said health care institutions take all sorts or precautions, like hand washing before treating patients.
“People are still getting hospitalized with COVID. It makes sense to wear a mask around people who are vulnerable to begin with in the hospital,” she said. “In a health care setting, why not continue requiring masks? It’s not that big of a deal.”
And other major health care systems aren’t following the lead of Advocate and Franciscan.
Northwestern Medicine and UChicago Medicine said Friday that their COVID-19 protocols remain unchanged. These hospital systems require masks for most visitors, and although visitor restrictions vary, in most cases, no more than two visitors per patient are allowed at any one time.
The Illinois Health and Hospital Association declined to comment on Advocate’s decision.