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BJC again enforces masks for staff, citing higher flu and COVID numbers

Barnes Jewish Hospital on Wednesday, March 29, 2023 in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
BJC, which operates Barnes-Jewish Hospital and more than a dozen other hospitals in Missouri and Illinois, will require employees to wear masks when working directly with patients.

BJC Healthcare is requiring workers Barnes-Jewish Hospital and its other hospitals throughout the St. Louis region to wear masks when interacting directly with patients, citing the need to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses.

While the coronavirus is circulating less widely than in previous years, an uptick in hospital admissions of COVID-19 patients and a number of employees getting sick with the virus, flu and other illnesses led BJC to put in place the mask requirement, said Dr. Hilary Babcock, chief quality officer at the health system.

“We are seeing some increases in our employees, similar to what we’re seeing in increases in hospitalized patients and county influenza data and wastewater data across the region,” she said.

The region’s hospitals admitted 232 patients with COVID-19 in the first week of December, according to federal data. That’s a 19% increase compared with the week before.

The four major hospital systems in the region dropped the requirement for face coveringsin March, citing lower numbers of patients with COVID-19, RSV and other contagious illnesses.

Starting Wednesday, system employees will need to wear masks when in "patient care settings," a spokeswoman said. BJC encourages patients and visitors to also wear masks but will not require them.

“We’re strongly encouraging and recommending them for patients,” Babcock said. ”But we really don’t want to be in a security enforcement relationship with friends and family members who want to see their loved ones who are sick.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists St. Louis and St. Louis County as having a “medium” community level of coronavirus risk.

The CDC measurement takes hospitalized patients, health system capacity and the number of positive tests into account instead of relying heavily on case numbers, which federal health officials said became less reliable as more people used at-home coronavirus tests that are not reported.

When communities are at medium risk, the CDC encourages residents to wear N95 masks or respirators if they are at a risk of severe complications from the coronavirus and to self-test before seeing someone who is at high risk of getting very sick from the virus.

The masks will protect against more than the coronavirus, Babcock said. Masks will keep people from getting sick from adenoviruses, enteroviruses, RSV and the flu.

“We’re seeing a lot of different respiratory viruses right now, and masks are really protective for all of them,” she said. “So wearing a mask keeps our patients safe from us if we are incubating one of those infections and don’t realize it yet, and also keep us safe from others around us who might have any one of those infections.”

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.