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St. Louis health director urges caution as hospitals drop mask requirements

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, City of St. Louis Department of Health director, addresses the media on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, during a press conference on recent federal approvals of the coronavirus vaccine for children 5 to 11 years of age outside of Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis Department of Health director, said relaxing mask requirements in hospitals is not an easy decision. "There certainly isn't — and may not be moving forward, understandably — a copy-and-paste approach," she said.

Updated March 17 with BJC Healthcare also lifting mask requirements

Washington University Medicine and BJC Healthcare will ease masking requirements next Wednesday, they announced Friday. Because of reduced COVID-19, flu and RSV cases, masks will become situational for employees and optional for patients at the health system.

Original story from March 16

After a move by three area hospital systems to drop their mask requirements three years into the pandemic, St. Louis’ health director is urging caution.

SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s no longer require patients, visitors or staff to wear masks, the hospitals said, citing decreased levels of COVID-19 in the community and low hospitalizations.

“We cannot have a black-and-white approach to mandates just because the overwhelming number of us are fortunate enough to maybe be of a certain demographic that doesn’t put us at risk,” Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the health director for St. Louis, said Thursday.

As a health official for the general public, Hlatshwayo Davis said she tends to think of those most vulnerable. However, making this decision is not easy, she said, and each health care system needs to do what’s best for it, based on staffing capabilities and patient population.

“There certainly isn't — and may not be moving forward, understandably — a copy-and-paste approach to when people implement or scale back on certain policies or mandates,” she said.

The move is part of what’s likely to be a growing trend, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

“It would be expected that additional hospitals will follow in easing their policies, where conditions and clinical judgment indicate it is no longer necessary,” said Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the association.

There are a few systems in the area still requiring masks. BJC Healthcare, one of the area’s largest health providers, is one.

“BJC is continuing to closely watch COVID-19 case rates and other respiratory infections in the hospital and in the community to determine when we will be able to safely reduce the use of masks in our health care settings,” BJC wrote in a statement. “If rates remain consistently low, changes could occur soon.”

Hospital Sisters Health System’s St. Elizabeth’s in O’Fallon, Illinois, also currently requires its patients and staff to mask, a spokeswoman said.

“We continue to assess this issue as respiratory and COVID-19 cases continue to decline,” Kelly Barbeau said.

Most of the counties surrounding St. Louis have COVID case rates at or below 10 per 100,000, according to the New York Times. Illinois’ Calhoun County has, by far, the highest at 30 per 100,000. Home to 4,000 people, the county averages 1.4 cases per day.

A spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health declined to comment Thursday on the hospitals’ move.

“But we would like to stress that COVID-19 is still spreading in our community, and we still recommend that individuals wear masks in crowded, indoor spaces,” spokesman Christopher Ave said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.