A lack of mask mandates at cancer centers and elsewhere has left cancer patients feeling unsafe and abandoned by society.
Patients reportedly feel unprotected from COVID-19 when the public and health care providers fail to wear masks. Patients have described feeling isolated from the world as an increasingly mask-free society tells them to “just stay home” to avoid SARS-CoV-2 infection. Patients have even reported being harassed by anti-maskers while seeking care and going about their daily lives.
Multiple studies have suggested that wearing face masks can effectively reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends masking as part of a multipronged approach to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.1-4
Nevertheless, masking requirements have been relaxed or removed across the globe, even in health care settings.5,6 Some health care systems have been lifting and reinstating mask requirements according to the number of COVID-19 cases and/or hospitalizations in the community, while other systems appear to have lifted mask mandates for good and even discourage patients from wearing masks.6-8
Cancer patients and their caregivers have voiced concerns on social media about a lack of masking at cancer centers. This appears to stem from the knowledge that some patients with cancer are at high risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes and are not sufficiently protected by COVID-19 vaccines.9-15
Carrie Honaker posted on Twitter that there was “not a mask in sight” when she went to a cancer center for a checkup in April.
“The cancer center where my mother is treated has dropped their mask requirement. Makes zero sense since they deal with some critically ill patients,” Sarah Johnson tweeted in May.
“My cancer center has made masks optional,” @lucyhascancer posted a few weeks later. “I can’t imagine NOT wearing a mask here. Even though I don’t feel like I’m high risk …, I don’t want to risk the health of my fellow cancer patients.”
Mask Mandates May Vary by State and Community Transmission Level
Houston Methodist, a health care system in Texas, lifted its universal mask mandate in April.6 Staff and patients were no longer required to wear masks in open public spaces, but masks were still required in clinical care areas and for any patient-staff interactions.
A month after this change was made, the universal mask mandate was reinstated due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the community, according to Firas Zabaneh, managing director of infection prevention and control at Houston Methodist.
“We have a scientific committee that looks at the current COVID-19 situation and decided to move back to masking in public areas due to multiple factors, including case numbers in the community starting to increase, as well as wastewater testing,” Zabaneh told Cancer Therapy Advisor.
At present, the Houston Methodist website states that masks are not required in non-clinical areas.16
Another health care system that has modified mask mandates in response to COVID-19 community transmission levels is UnityPoint Health, which has locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.6 In April, some UnityPoint Health locations loosened mask requirements for patients and visitors. Now, according to their websites, most locations have universal mask mandates in place due to an increase in community transmission levels.17
“I’ve been very fortunate in that the community oncology practice where I go in California still requires masking, and their staff has a high incidence of vaccination,” Kelly Shanahan, MD, told Cancer Therapy Advisor. Dr Shanahan has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2013.
“But I have friends in other parts of the country, like Florida, where the oncology center is no longer requiring masking, which I think is insane,” Dr Shanahan added.
As in the rest of the United States, masking requirements vary at cancer centers in Florida. Florida Cancer Specialists, which has locations throughout the state, still requires universal masking, according to the organization’s website.18 Parrish Medical Center in Titusville has lifted its mask mandate, and Central Florida Cancer Institute, which has locations in Davenport and Lake Wales, actively discourages masking for most patients.7,8
“Health officials say that unless you have cold or flu-like symptoms, you should not wear a face mask,” the institute’s website says. “It is far more important and effective to wash your hands often and not touch your face.”
This statement is not in line with recommendations from the WHO or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4,19 However, it is similar to recommendations from the Florida Department of Health, which no longer reference masking as a way to help prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2.20