New York officials will not be renewing the state’s mask mandate policy in medical settings after it expires Sunday.
“This transition’s an important step forward, moving beyond the public health emergency,” said Dr. James McDonald, the acting commissioner for the New York State Department of Health, on Thursday.
Now, hospitals and health care facilities are encouraged to “come up with their own plan for when masking may be required for their staff, based on community cases, not on vaccine status,” McDonald said.
The decision, arriving five months after the state lifted its mask mandate on public transportation, marks the end of one of New York’s few remaining COVID-19 safety protocols.
In a statement released Friday, McDonald said that although the pandemic is not over, “we are moving to a transition” by lifting the masking requirement in health care settings.
But many New Yorkers, especially those who are immunocompromised or disabled, are concerned about the shift.
“This decision puts all New Yorkers at risk, particularly people who are at higher risk and the most vulnerable,” a spokesperson for Mandate Masks NY, an advocacy organization pushing for the implementation of mask mandates in public spaces, wrote to HuffPost.
“Ending the mask mandate in healthcare settings in the midst of continuing high COVID-19 transmission abandons the state’s responsibility for public health,” the spokesperson added.
Opponents of the move say many people will have a hard time obtaining medical care without putting themselves at risk, especially since most of New York still has high transmission levels.
“Healthcare is a human right, and higher risk people have the right to access healthcare safely,” Lucky Tran, an expert on public health and science communication, wrote in a tweet.
Mandate Masks NY also said it is “unacceptable” that the public only got three days’ notice for the change.
“There was no warning to the public and no chance for people to rush to get medical care while it was still safer and no chance to reschedule appointments,” the group said in a tweet.
Mandate Masks NY and its supporters are calling on the state Health Department, as well as Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and other officials, to keep the mask mandate in place.
Hochul’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“Mandate Masks NY urges New York State to prioritize patients, healthcare workers, public health, and equity over politics, and reverse its decision and renew the mask mandate for healthcare settings,” the group’s spokesperson said. “Everyone has a right to access medical care safely.”
At an event this week, New York City’s health commissioner responded to calls for mask mandates in public spaces.
“We’re in a much better place with COVID than we’ve been in years past, but also in months past,” said Dr. Ashwin Vasan, adding that case numbers have seen a steep and continuous decline recently.
“We are no longer at high transmission. We are now into medium and approaching lower transmission,” Vasan continued.
But many called out the health commissioner’s comments, noting that the test positivity rate in the city remains high.
Patrick Gallahue of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene clarified Vasan’s remarks in a statement sent to HuffPost: “We are at high transmission but medium risk.”
He continued, “While transmission is down to the lowest rate since March 2022, Dr. Vasan has taken every opportunity to continue to encourage vaccination along with other precautions like masking in public when indoors, frequent testing and getting treatment if positive for COVID-19.”
The push to lift mask mandates in New York echoes a larger societal shift away from pandemic safety policies. Nearly the entire country ditched COVID-19 protocols by early 2022, leaving behind many disabled and immunocompromised people in the process.
During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden declared that COVID-19 “no longer controls our lives.” The statement came a week after he announced that the nation’s COVID-19 public health emergency will end in May.
“Officials continue to avoid acknowledging that immunocompromised & high risk people are being locked out of society,” Tran, the science communication expert, wrote in a tweet. “This is a complete failure of public health. Public health officials should always listen to & center the voices of the people who are most impacted by a crisis.”