University of Texas Medical Branch students, employees and patients, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear masks in clinical areas because of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, officials said.
The announcement comes as COVID case numbers have been on the rise because of the more contagious delta variant, said Janak Patel, director of infection control and healthcare epidemiology at the medical branch. Breakthrough infections, which are COVID cases that occur in fully vaccinated people more than two weeks after their last shot, also have been reported, causing concern, he said.
“We have to double up because we are very concerned with the delta virus,” he said. “It is quite different, much more transmissible.”
The medical branch’s recommendations include wearing N-95 masks and other protective equipment when interacting with confirmed or suspected COVID patients; wearing face masks in all clinical areas, including on- and off-campus clinics; and being tested for COVID after being exposed while not wearing a mask regardless of vaccination status, according to a memo.
All patients and visitors also will be required to wear masks in hospitals and on- and off-campus clinics.
Before the mandate, employees, students and visitors were required to wear masks in hospitals and attached clinics, Patel said. In outlying clinics, the decision was optional based on vaccination status, he said.
Although mask requirements are prohibited in certain places because of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, clinics and hospitals are exempt. A couple of weeks ago, when COVID rates were lower, the university wouldn’t have been able to justify a mask mandate. But now with the increase in cases, it can, he said.
“We’ve reached the point where we can now make it mandatory,” he said.
The medical branch isn’t alone. Other hospitals in the area also are seeing an increase in cases, he said.
The delta variant is particularly concerning because it is both more dangerous and more contagious, Patel said. And even among fully vaccinated people, the variant is spreading, although that’s still only in a small percentage of cases. And although the virus is mild in vaccinated people, they can still transmit it, he said.
The delta variant now is the most common COVID variant in the area, and it’s responsible for almost all of the positive tests performed at the medical branch, Patel said.
The increase in infections and the contagiousness of the variant mean people should start wearing masks and socially distancing again, even if they have been vaccinated, Patel said. He also encouraged everyone to avoid large gatherings, which could lead to cluster outbreaks.
“I would urge people to go back to the way we were thinking in December and January,” he said. “If you’re sick with any respiratory illness, please go get tested and please wear a mask until you get the results back.”
Those who are exposed to infected people should also get tested and self-isolate until they receive negative test results, he said.
Patel expects the new mask regulations to last until there is another downward trend in cases, which might take some time. That will happen sooner, though, if more people get vaccinated, he said. Although vaccinated people still are at risk, they’re more protected than unvaccinated people.
“The best tool we have is to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said.