As of Monday, healthcare workers and others in California are no longer required by the state to wear masks at hospitals or other high-risk indoor settings such as jails, prisons, and homeless shelters. While individual counties can still require people to wear masks inside healthcare facilities, Berkeley hasn’t done so and has chosen instead to follow state guidelines that encourage but don’t require masking. 

This story was first published on The Oaklandside.

In recent days, Oakland-based disabled and immunocompromised individuals, seniors, doctors, and others concerned with public health have participated in protests, call-ins, and letter-writing campaigns calling on Alameda County and its top health officer Dr. Nicholas Moss to continue requiring mask-wearing in healthcare facilities. The county health department issued a mandate on March 27 requiring staff at skilled nursing facilities to wear masks while working with residents, but the order did not include other healthcare settings, including hospitals and clinics. 

In the absence of a state or county mask mandate, large healthcare providers operating in Oakland have been creating their own policies. While some are dropping the requirement for their workers, patients, and visitors, others are keeping mask mandates to varying degrees.

Two of the biggest providers in Oakland and Berkeley — Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health — have stopped requiring masks in most cases. Sutter Health, which operates Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, told physicians and clinicians in a memo on March 28 that “masking is recommended but no longer required within most patient care settings,” but that staff must still wear masks when treating patients with “known or suspected airborne transmissible disease,” such as COVID-19. 

“We continue to recommend masks and make them available for healthcare workers, patients and visitors at our care facilities,” a Sutter Health spokesperson said in an email Tuesday. “However, based on changes to state and local health orders, as well as the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and tests, improved treatments and lower occurrences of severe COVID-19 infections, we also recognize the importance of personal choice in masking and managing exposure to COVID-19.”  

Sutter will also continue “to require masks for patient care in transplant units and infusion centers.”

Kaiser updated its website on March 31 to inform visitors to their hospitals and clinics that “masks are no longer required at Kaiser Permanente facilities,” unless they are mandated by the government, regulatory agencies, or local infection prevention experts. Visitors also no longer have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to visit friends or family in the hospital.

In an email, a spokesperson told The Oaklandside Kaiser will “monitor and adhere to all applicable federal, state, and local regulations regarding masking.” The spokesperson also confirmed that masking is no longer required for all staff, except for “in designated circumstances and clinical areas.” The Oaklandside has requested clarification from Kaiser about what those circumstances and areas are and will update this story if we receive new information.

Alameda Health System, a public network that is separate from the Alameda County Public Health Department and operates nine facilities in the East Bay including Highland Hospital and the Eastmont Wellness clinic in Oakland, will continue to require masking in most cases. AHS issued a memo to staff on March 28 stating that masking is still required for workers and visitors to their facilities. 

Alameda Health System’s chief medical officer, Dr. Felicia Tornabene, confirmed to The Oaklandside in a statement that the policy also applies to patients.

“We will continue to require masks in high-risk settings because we are still caring for significant numbers of COVID-19 patients in our health system,” said Tornabene. “That means that AHS staff, patients, and visitors will be required to wear masks in patient care areas.”

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, the only hospital that cares exclusively for children in Oakland, is operating under a new policy that mandates staff and students at the hospital to mask in indoor clinical areas as well as elevators and lobbies. Patients and visitors, however, no longer have to wear masks.

Smaller healthcare providers across Oakland such as community-based clinics, private doctors, and dentists are also no longer bound by state law to require masking, although they are free to create such requirements if they choose to, and policies will vary from site to site.

Hospital masking requirements remain in some other California counties. San Francisco and Los Angeles counties have issued mandates requiring all staff and personnel, but not visitors or patients, to mask at healthcare facilities. In Santa Clara County, masks must be worn by staff, patients and visitors in patient-care areas only during a “winter respiratory virus period” between Nov. 1 and March 31 of each year. 

Masks still required in skilled nursing facilities in Berkeley

Staff must continue to wear masks at skilled nursing facilities in Berkeley despite the state lifting its mask mandate in high-risk areas, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, correctional facilities, skilled nursing homes and homeless shelters. 

Berkeley’s independent health department issued guidelines for nursing facilities aligned with Alameda County, which became effective Monday and is expected to be reviewed monthly.

While masks are required for staff in the five licensed sites, visitors are “strongly encouraged” to wear them, Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote in a memo to the mayor and City Council. 

As of March 24, 74 Berkeley residents have died due to COVID-19, and 32% occurred in skilled nursing facilities. 

Nationwide, COVID hospitalizations and deaths have declined as more people become vaccinated and have accessed anti-viral treatments. But the virus continues to claim lives. Over 250 people per day have been dying of COVID on average this year.

Berkeleyside contributed to this report.

Photo by Pete Rosos

Safety recommendations

• Stay home if you are ill or have tested positive for COVID-19 

• Keep up to date on vaccinations, including the updated COVID-19 booster

• Wear a high-quality, well-fitted mask

• Gather outdoors to reduce risk or if gathering indoors, improve ventilation by  opening doors and windows or running air filtration systems 

• Get tested if exposed or sick

• Plan how and where to access treatment and, if positive, contact a health care provider or utilize a state-supported resource immediately; do not wait until symptoms worsen.