Veterans Affairs health officials are not currently planning to require all patients and visitors at department hospitals to wear masks despite several private health care systems making the move in response to rising COVID-19 numbers.

However, local officials can opt to reinstate mask mandates for patient and staff safety if regional conditions warrant it.

Private hospital systems in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Washington D.C. have returned to mask requirements at their facilities in recent weeks, citing an increase in cases of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that COVID-19 hospitalizations were up more than 56% from the start of December to the start of January. As of Jan. 14, active COVID-19 cases within the VA health care system were up nearly 33% over the last month, matching their highest level since 12 months earlier.

VA rescinded its previous mandatory masking requirement for department medical sites in March 2023, just two months before the formal end of the national pandemic emergency. Department officials said they are not currently looking to follow the lead of those private sector hospitals.

“At this time, VA has no recommendation for reinstating VA-wide masking requirements,” said VA spokesman Gary Kunich. “Our experts are continuously evaluating the national and international epidemiological conditions and providing policy support.”

Department health researchers reported nearly 1,800 deaths related to COVID-19 among VA patients in 2023. Since March 2020, more than 25,600 patients connected to VA health care have died from complications related to the virus.

Health care officials have warned in recent years that veterans may be more susceptible to serious health problems stemming from coronavirus infection because of other existing medical complications.

Kunich said local health care leaders can opt to make masks mandatory regardless of the national policy if they see local surges in cases.

VA medical staff have provided more than 5.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses over the last two years. Veterans or family members interested in receiving a booster can contact their closest VA health care location for information on availability.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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