Doctor, could you please put your mask on? Virginia health care workers reminded to follow governor’s order

Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver has a message for health care workers slacking on a critical new rule: Masks aren’t just for patients.

In a letter sent to clinicians Friday, Dr. Oliver stressed that face coverings are required by law. Numerous citizen complaints, some of which pertained to health care practices licensed by the Department of Health Professions, prompted the reminder.

“Not only should DHP licensees be following the mandates and best practices for safety, but they should be the role models for such practices,” he said.

It happens to the best of us — an ill-fitting face covering slips down beneath your nose, or an ear loop dangles loose. Maybe you forgot to grab your mask from the glove compartment or to put it back on after a bite to eat. But public health officials say that doctors, nurses and other medical staff should know better and be setting a good example.

Hospital systems have their own requirements for staff regarding surgical masks, N95 respirators and face shields, depending on their duties and potential exposure.

The letter was sent jointly with Department of Health Professions Director David Brown. The agency is beginning to assist with responding to complaints, spokeswoman Diane Powers said.

It’s unclear just how many health care workers aren’t masking properly. The state’s Department of Health, which tracks the complaints through its Office of Environmental Health Services, couldn’t give more insight into the numbers reported — or whether any individuals or practices have been disciplined — when asked by The Virginian-Pilot on Monday.

Mounting scientific research has shown that the coronavirus is transmitted through the air, in fine mists of respiratory droplets that come out of people’s mouths when they cough, sneeze or talk. Studies also show that a face mask can trap those droplets from an infected person and prevent COVID-19 from spreading to others.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield in July. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The CDC has referenced a case study involving a Boston health care system with over 75,000 employees. Before a universal masking requirement for all health care workers and patients, new infections among the employees were increasing exponentially, from 0 to 21.3%. After the policy, the cases of symptomatic employees with positive test results steadily declined, from about 15% to 11.5%, according to an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Since the public health crisis began in March, over 134,000 people in Virginia have gotten the coronavirus and 3,021 have died, according to statewide data published Monday.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order in May that mandated face coverings be worn in any indoor space shared by groups of people who are close to each other. That includes health care practices, Oliver said.

In August, Northam issued another executive order that requires companies to adhere to guidelines for their business sectors. Health care facilities have additional guidance.

Any willful failures to follow the order could be punished as a Class 1 misdemeanor, and the health commissioner may also seek injunctive relief in circuit court for violations.

Elisha Sauers,, 757-222-3864


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