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Medical assistant Tyla Wilson collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample to test for COVID-19 for 15-year-old Brianna Green at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side, Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, 2022.

Medical assistant Tyla Wilson collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample to test for COVID-19 for 15-year-old Brianna Green at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side, Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin

Masks are back in Chicago-area health care settings

Keep your mask handy if you’re heading to a hospital or doctor’s appointment anytime soon.

Some Chicago-area health care systems are again requiring visitors to mask up to help mitigate recent spreading of respiratory viruses, mainly influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.

Rush announced a new policy Tuesday requiring patients, visitors and staff to wear hospital-approved face coverings in interactive settings, such as waiting areas and patient rooms. It follows similar mandates implemented last month by Cook County Health and Endeavor Health, which operates Swedish Hospital and eight others in the suburbs.

Dr. David Nguyen, an infectious disease specialist for adults and children at Rush, said the hospital made the change largely due to a sharp increase in flu cases.

“The flu is actually what we’re really worried about,” Nguyen said, noting that COVID-19 and RSV are still a concern, but those cases seemed to have plateaued.

He pointed to early in the COVID-19 pandemic when masking and social distancing appeared to have caused “a remarkable interruption” in flu and RSV, so the new policy aims to “account for all those infections.”

The number of flu patients admitted to Chicago intensive care units more than doubled from early December to the week ending Dec. 23, and emergency rooms across the state saw double the flu patients in the last two weeks of December, according to the city’s Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Chicago hospitals were admitting 30 COVID-19 patients per day as of Christmas Eve, according to the city health department’s latest available data.

More than half of Illinois counties are at a medium or high level of COVID-19 hospitalizations under metrics set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including Cook and DuPage.

The several policy moves come on the heels of Illinois Department of Public Health recommendations in mid-December for health care facilities to up their respiratory virus mitigation efforts.

“We are most concerned with health care facilities in counties with elevated respiratory virus transmission and hospitalization levels and recommend masking in patient-care areas, especially in emergency departments and areas caring for patients who are immunocompromised,” IDPH director Dr. Sameer Vohra said in a statement.

Most of the new mandates are especially enforced in “high-risk” areas, such as procedural areas, intensive care units and emergency departments.

UChicago Medicine is still adhering to its mask policy adopted in September, requiring all employees, and visitors showing symptoms, to wear masks while strongly encouraging other visitors and patients to mask up.

Northwestern Medicine follows a similar rule, only requiring masks when visitors and patients are showing symptoms such as cough, sneezing, sore throat, fever and runny nose.

Loyola Medicine requires everyone in its facilities to wear masks regardless of symptoms.

Cook County Health also updated its visitor policy last month. It allows two visitors per patient in inpatient units and one visitor per patient in the emergency trauma unit and outpatient areas.

Kate Hedlin, a spokesperson for Cook County Health, said masks “are an easy way to reduce transmission.”

Vaccines also are “an excellent tool for us to reduce hospitalizations, severe infections and death,” Hedlin said. “It’s never too late to get vaccinated.”

COVID-19 and flu shots are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.

RSV vaccines are also available for people 60 or older, infants, young children and pregnant women.

Visit for help finding a vaccine.

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