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UChicago Medicine transitions to universal masking as COVID-19 transmission becomes widespread

As the COVID-19 public health crisis continues to escalate rapidly and the public spread of disease becomes widespread, the University of Chicago Medicine is adapting its masking and furlough policies to continue to care for patients and the community, while ensuring the continued protection of all patients and employees.

Beginning April 3, the academic health system will be transitioning all staff to universal masking as it brings back asymptomatic faculty and staff members who were furloughed after potential exposure to the virus. The universal masking policy requires all personnel (clinical or otherwise) to wear some type of facemask when working on the medical campus, which reduces the risk of transmission from staff who may be carrying the disease but asymptomatic.

However, any employee who has respiratory symptoms, influenza-like illness or a fever will not return to work, and those who have been tested positive for COVID-19 must stay at home until cleared to return.

COVID-19 is now in widespread community circulation, and an infection-control furlough policy that had been focused on those who could be traced to a known exposure or another country with high infection rates no longer provides the right level of protection for patients and other staff.  Prior to these changes, employees were furloughed when they reported unprotected exposure to someone with COVID-19 or recent travel to restricted countries.

The move to universal masking also allows for a change to UChicago Medicine’s furlough policy. Asymptomatic workers who had been furloughed due to travel to another country experiencing infection or a suspected exposure domestically will now be returned to work with the new masking. This new requirement will be initiated through the use of cloth masks to protect everyone at UChicago Medicine and prevent the spread of infection among employees. Universal masking protects others from the mask-wearer by ensuring the wearer’s respiratory droplets don’t land on surfaces or other people.

“Because the disease continues to spread in our community, we must assume anyone can be exposed at any time and are expecting a surge of infected patients in the coming days,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “We are optimistic that having a universal-masking policy, ending furloughs for asymptomatic employees, and practicing effective social distancing will mean we can protect our workforce from viral spread so that they, in turn, can continue to perform critical services for patients in need and serve the community.”

These changes are in keeping with public health guidelines and are aligned with practices of other academic medical centers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending cloth masks as an effective alternative during crisis situations. It is important to note that UCMC healthcare workers will continue to use medical masks (surgical masks and N95 respirators) when caring for patients with respiratory illness.

If cloth masks are in short supply, employees will be issued a procedural mask and will get a cloth version as soon as UChicago Medicine’s supplies are replenished. Faculty and staff will continue to wear appropriate surgical or N95 masks based on the type of patient care involved.

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