TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—While the New York State Department of Health has officially dropped the mask mandate in healthcare facilities, Tompkins County’s “high” community transmission level means that the requirement essentially remains in place locally.
State to local COVID-19 guidelines have been intermittently jumbled throughout the pandemic, and the state’s latest move is a similar instance. While the state has dropped the mask mandate in healthcare settings, that only applies to counties where the community transmission level is not in the “high” range, which it still is in Tompkins County. Nearly every county in New York is still in the “high” or “substantial” community transmission level category.
According to Tompkins County Whole Health (TCWH; the new name for the Tompkins County Health Department post-merger with the mental health department), the state Department of Health’s announcement brings New York into alignment with the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines. But since Tompkins County is still in the “high” community transmission level designation by the CDC, the mask mandate for healthcare settings is still in effect, according to TCWH Director Frank Kruppa. Those settings include hospitals, nursing homes, home health care and hospice agencies, and diagnostic and treatment centers, according to TCWH.
Once the transmission level drops to the “medium” or “low” stages, it will be up to individual healthcare facilities to determine their own masking plans. The change reflects a September decision by the CDC to step back from its universal masking recommendation for healthcare settings, though that also only applied to places without “high” community transmission.
“Healthcare facilities as defined in the guidance should continue to require mask wearing for both staff and visitors until such time that the transmission levels fall to medium or low,” Kruppa said in a press release. “At that time, based on their own unique circumstances, facilities may choose to operate based on CDC-level guidance. We ask the public to please respect the operating plans as developed by the specific facility.”
A “high” community transmission level, according to the CDC, is indicated by a combination of new cases (more than 100 per 100,000 people over the last seven days) and a positive test rate over 10 percent over the last week. For Tompkins County, those numbers are 98 new cases over the last week and a 14.29 percent positive test rate during that time, numbers that are updated every Thursday. Another caveat to note here: testing numbers in general have cratered as fewer people are regularly tested through the government and more are administering at-home tests, which may not be recorded by the county if the results aren’t self-submitted by the person taking the test. This, unfortunately, creates quite a bit of noise in the positive test rate and makes it more difficult to determine accurately, especially because positive tests are far more likely to be submitted to TCWH than negative tests.
However, the present strain on the healthcare system (coined the “community level”) is in the “low” designation because there are currently not many active COVID-19 hospitalizations in Tompkins County, meaning the healthcare system locally is not considered overly burdened by current COVID-19 cases. The community transmission level, though, seems like it will be the determining factor for masking in Tompkins County healthcare facilities.
According to the CDC, there were nine new patients hospitalized with COVID-19 during the last week in the county, and patients currently take up 4.3 percent of total available inpatient beds, and 11.6 percent of total available ICU beds. Those numbers have remained fairly steady for about the last year or so, since the much higher peaks around the beginning of 2022.
The full Tompkins County trend chart can be found below, charting since Jan. 1, 2021.