A statue of Lester E. Cox in the entryway to Cox South Hospital is adorned with a giant mask. ( Photo by Jym Wilson)

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As Roberta Hurley made rounds early Wednesday morning in Mercy Hospital’s ICU, she relayed the news she’d received minutes prior. 

“Hey guys,” she told them. “We don’t have to wear a mask anymore.” 

The reaction from hospital staff, she said, was a mix of excitement and a little bit of nervousness. Through the worst periods of the pandemic, the ICU has hosted scores of patients suffering from symptoms linked to COVID. But on March 15, nobody in need of intensive care at Mercy needed it because of the coronavirus. 

“Most of our employees were excited,” Hurley said. “They’re like, ‘OK! I’ll take it off!’ That was the initial reaction for most people.”

Citing months of supporting internal and external data showing a decline in cases across Springfield and surrounding communities, both Mercy and CoxHealth announced this week that masks are now optional for hospital staff, patients, providers and visitors, including in clinical spaces. After three years of mandatory masking up in area hospitals in response to COVID-19, it is a significant policy change. 

Patients can still request staff to mask

Patients at both hospitals can request that their health care providers wear masks when treating them. Hurley said Wednesday morning that no one had done so in the first few hours since the masking policy changed. 

“Most of our staff has taken their masks off,” Hurley said Wednesday morning. “We all have mixed feelings. You know, I have some staff that still have masks on for their own health reasons or they’re a little nervous taking it off. We have some staff that’s worried about an uptick, with everyone not masking — or having the option to not mask. I think overall, it’s kind of an exciting milestone for COVID, for this unit. Having those COVID patients and going through that, it’s a positive as well as a little bit scary-type of thing. For the most part, I think the coworkers are excited. It’s kind of nice seeing each other’s faces again.”

Hurley learned of the change a little bit after the 6:07 a.m. email announcing the policy shift went out to Mercy employees on March 15. But it was already a topic of conversation when Hurley clocked in at 6 a.m.

The afternoon prior, CoxHealth had announced a relaxing of its masking policy, and Hurley said several coworkers asked her if she thought Mercy’s policy would change as well. As has been the case with numerous pandemic-related decisions, the two major health care providers updated the policies in tandem. 

CoxHealth safety expert says data backs masking policy change

Corrin Fugitt, director of quality and safety at CoxHealth, said internal and external data support the decision. Inside CoxHealth, Fugitt said a team of experts tracks variables like hospitalizations due to COVID, as well as staff members who are out sick due to COVID infection. Outside the hospital doors, the team tracks national, state and local trends. In Greene County, the seven-day average case count in hasn’t exceeded 30 since early January, according to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s COVID recovery dashboard, and only about 2 percent of hospital beds in the area host patients with confirmed COVID cases. 

“All of the data has been stable for greater than two months,” Fugitt said. “We aren’t seeing an uptick in severe illness or mortality or hospitalizations. And we know that in our community, people aren’t masking and not masking and the community hasn’t driven those numbers up.”

She said that in recent months, there have been few patients admitted to CoxHealth’s ICU due to COVID-related health issues. Hurley said that’s been the case recently at Mercy as well. 

“I would say probably over the last month, we’ve had maybe two or three here in the ICU,” Hurley said. “In the main hospital, it may be a little bit different. But in the ICU, we haven’t had as many. And really since the beginning of this year, even, we haven’t had a whole lot. And luckily for us, our cases are not as intense. Sometimes they still require the ventilator and that kind of thing, but they’re not as sick as they were during the big rush of COVID for this couple of years.”

Hurley, like Fugitt, wasn’t wearing a mask during an interview with the Daily Citizen. 

“It feels different,” Hurley said. “I work on the floor and I work in an office. When I work in the office, I don’t have one. Working out in the unit, I have it on. A couple of us went to breakfast without the masks on, and we’re like, ‘This is so awkward.’”

Hospitals share exceptions to mask-optional rules

At both CoxHealth and Mercy, there are caveats to the mask-optional policies. 

Mercy’s email to staff specifies that masking is optional in all Mercy facilities for co-workers, physicians, providers, patients and visitors unless:  

  • They have been symptomatic for COVID or exposed to someone with COVID within the past 10 days
  • A clinical space is experiencing a COVID outbreak
  • Care is being provided for, a visit is being made to, a patient in isolation
  • The Mercy employee was declared exempt from receiving flu or COVID vaccinations (until at least March 31)

At CoxHealth, patients who exhibit respiratory symptoms when admitted for care will be asked to mask. Other caveats include: 

  • That staff will continue to mask when providing direct inpatient care or when interacting with patients for a prolonged period of time
  • That masks will remain mandatory in departments where immunocompromised receive care
  • That visitors will be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks when visiting patients in the neonatal intensive care unit or when around immunocompromised patients, and will not be allowed to enter CoxHealth if they show signs of COVID symptoms or infection or have been knowingly exposed to someone who is infected

At both CoxHealth and Mercy facilities, masks will still be provided to visitors who choose to wear them. 

And, as has been the case since the outset of the pandemic, things can change. If another variant presents itself, ICU cases climb or another key data point upticks, stricter measures could be put in place. 

Hurley said she hasn’t been looking forward to a mask-optional decision so much as she’s been looking forward to a time when COVID numbers were low enough to allow for the eased restrictions. She said she hopes this is a sign of a “new normal.” 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson