DHMC, others to drop mask requirements

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2023 4:46 PM

LEBANON — Masks are coming off within days at several health care facilities across the Upper Valley.

As of Monday, April 10, masks will be optional for people at Dartmouth Health facilities who don’t have respiratory symptoms, according to DH’s website. In the Upper Valley, that includes Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, and New London Hospital, as well as clinics in Lebanon and Lyme.

Masks still will be required for people who have signs of respiratory illness such as congestion, cough, runny nose or sore throat; have been diagnosed with respiratory illness such as COVID-19 or flu; or who have had a known exposure to COVID-19 within the past 10 days. DH will continue to make masks available in its facilities.

Audra Burns, a DH spokeswoman, said details about DH’s new policy would be made public on Friday.

A Thursday email to DH volunteers from Volunteer Services Supervisor Marcy Sanborn explained that the DH Health System COVID-19 Operations Group is making these changes “due to high vaccination rates, low community transmission and increased public immunity. We will continue to closely monitor the data and, should there be an unexpected surge in cases, adjust our guidelines accordingly.”

Sanborn asked that volunteers only come in when they are feeling well.

DH facilities are among others in the Twin States that are dropping or considering dropping mask mandates as case counts and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are low.

On Friday, masks will no longer be required at Cottage Hospital in Woodsville.

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“As we see a decrease in community transmission and population immunity increasing we are safely able to move away from universal masking and move more towards our standard procedures for infection prevention,” Natalie Kennett, Cottage’s chief nursing officer, said in a Thursday email.

Elsewhere in the Twin States, the University of Vermont Health Network and Concord Hospital also announced this week that they are moving to optional masking policies.

Vanessa Stafford, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Hospital Association, echoed Kennett’s reasoning relating to the decrease in community transmission and the increase in population immunity, acquired through prior infection and vaccination.

She explained in a Thursday email that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that health systems base their masking policies on COVID-19 community transmission data. She sought to assure people that the decision to drop mask requirements is informed by that data and that “hospitals and health care facilities are safe places for patients to receive both routine and emergency care.”

Ben Truman, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Health, said that while masks will continue to be a useful tool in health care settings, as they were at times before the pandemic, it makes sense to move away from broad requirements now.

“Universal masking requirements and policies put in place at the height of the pandemic can transition as we see lower COVID-19 transmission, high vaccination rates, and increased immunity in Vermont,” he said.

Three other hospitals in the Upper Valley, Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont and Springfield (Vt.) Hospital, have yet to relax their mask requirements, but they may not be far behind DH and Cottage.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to drop in our area, we do anticipate a relaxation of masking requirements,” said Tim McNulty, a Valley Regional spokesman. “We currently don’t have a timeline when this will occur.”

Ashley Lincoln, a Gifford spokeswoman, said the Randolph hospital is planning to evaluate its mask protocols early next week, but in the meantime, “Gifford still requires masking for patients, staff and visitors.”

Springfield Hospital spokeswoman Anna Smith also said the mask policy “is under consideration, but has not been changed as yet.”

Meanwhile in a Thursday news release, advocates for people with disabilities lamented the effect the elimination of universal masking requirements may have on people at increased risk of serious illness or death should they contract COVID-19.

“True measure of equitable public health (ought) not be when those of us who are least vulnerable are healthy and safe but must be when those of us who are most vulnerable are cared for and protected,” the Rev. Mark Hughes, executive director of Racial Justice Alliance and chair of the Health Equity Advisory Commission, said in the release put out by the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights.

Dr. Melissa Houser, who provides primary care in central Vermont and also serves as executive director of the Montpelier-based All Brains Belong VT, said she is concerned that people with disabilities will feel unsafe seeking out medical care, especially from specialists.

“I am concerned that what is being offered as accommodations (i.e., being able to ask a medical provider to wear a mask) is not acknowledging what we know about the spread of COVID-19,” she said in a Thursday email. “COVID is an airborne illness. Entering a building, walking through a waiting room, entering a space where an unmasked person has already spread aerosols — all of those are risks.”

One of the coalition’s members, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, is scheduled to host a free webinar at 10:30 a.m. Monday to inform Vermonters with disabilities of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, including equal access to health care. Registration is online at: https://tinyurl.com/rightsADA.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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