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Rochester hospitals requiring ‘universal masking’ as COVID-19 spreads

Leaders at the University of Rochester Medical Center discuss their plans for a universal masking policy at URMC hospitals in a virtual news conference on Tuesday.

Hospitals in Rochester will require almost everyone who enters to wear a mask.

Starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, hospitals in the Rochester Regional Health and University of Rochester Medical Center systems will require surgical-type masks for staff, visitors and vendors in common areas, administrators said.

As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 becomes more prevalent in the community, hospitals could become easy sites for disease transmission without additional preventive measures, the administrators said.

The hospitals said they would still save the more protective N95 masks for high-risk procedures like intubating patients to start them on a ventilator.

Those procedures can produce tiny liquid droplets that suspend the virus in the air and allow it to be inhaled by health care providers unless they are wearing a mask with a fine filter and a tight seal. 

The move to increase use of surgical masks could strain the hospitals’ supply of those products. Both hospital systems are accepting donations of masks and other protective gear, URMC here and Rochester Regional here.

Lisa Swisher at Sew Creative in Fairport has been coordinating some of those donations. She said her phone is often ringing with people who want to know how to sew homemade masks.

“It’s been crazy,” she said. “It’s been great, I mean, there’s been a huge response. I’m just really grateful to the community for everything they’ve done. Lots of donations, and lots of people want to help.”

The hospital systems said their supplies of personal protective equipment, including masks, were sufficient for the time being, though they are asking staff to sanitize and reuse N95 masks.

Donations of homemade masks will be kept in a kind of stockpile in case standard masks run out. The federal Centers for Disease Control has published guidance for health care providers to use bandanas or scarves “as a last resort” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local hospital officials said they were not at that point yet, and they hoped continued social distancing measures would ensure that cases of COVID-19 remained low enough to avoid dipping into that stockpile.

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