CNA taking off her mask in front of a laptop
(Credit: Fly View Productions / Getty Images)

Plans to drop a mask mandate in healthcare settings — including residential care facilities — next month are moving forward in Massachusetts, despite outcries from some health professionals and organizations that ending masking requirements is “dangerous and unethical.”

Gov. Maura Healey (D) announced plans to lift the state masking requirement, as well as a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for state workers, when the state’s COVID-19 health emergency ends on May 11, the same day the federal COVID public health emergency ends.

The state required masks to be worn by all staff and visitors inside residential care facilities and skilled nursing facilities. Masking was optional for residents. 

Brian Doherty, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association told McKnight’s Senior Living that Mass-ALA supports ending the mask mandate.

“We believe that, while safety and infection control comes first, COVID-19 cases continue to decline, and we can safely let individual residences decide which mask policies best suit their residents’ needs,” Doherty said. “With health data supporting lifting the mandate, we can deliver a huge improvement in the quality of life for our residens.”

He added that ending the mask mandate is not only supported by public health data, but it also comes with clear benefits for staff and residents — residents with hearing or dementia issues found communicating with masked staff members very difficult.

Healey said in a statement that the vaccination requirement saved “countless lives,” but that it is time to update the state’s COVID-19 response.

“We’ve made important progress in the fight against COVID-19,” Healey said. “We know that we have the tools to manage this virus — vaccines, masking, testing, getting treatments and staying home when sick — and we’ve reached the point where we can update our guidance to reflect where we are now.”

A state Department of Public Health official told WBUR that the decision to end masking in healthcare facilities is aligned with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and was made “following extensive conversations with healthcare experts.”

Federal and state requirements for healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will remain in place.

Hundreds of local medical professionals and organizations, however, signed onto a letter calling on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, local boards of health and healthcare organizations to require masking in all healthcare settings and to provide masks for everyone in those settings.

“Removing masks in healthcare puts both patients and healthcare workers at risk, which could place even more strain on the healthcare system amidst severe staffing shortages,” the letter read. “Without universal masking precautions in healthcare, vulnerable people face substantial risk of being exposed in waiting rooms or clinical settings against their will, violating their autonomy, and deterring many from seeking much-needed care.”

Oregon, New Jersey and California also recently announced an end to some pandemic-era requirements in anticipation of the COVID-19 national emergency and PHE ending next month.