The Department of Veterans Affairs has dropped its requirement that patients and staff wear face masks in most VA medical facilities, ending a mandate that has been in effect for the past three years.
Officials said Friday the department will still require masks in facilities where transmission risk is considered high, and masks also will remain mandatory in areas where COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to vulnerable patients, such as inpatient medical and surgical units, intensive care, chemotherapy, dialysis and post-transplant units.
For locations assessed at low or medium levels of risk, however, local medical leaders will weigh the risks and determine whether masking should be optional in their facility.
Before the announcement, masks were required regardless of local risks.
"This new policy will ensure the safety of Veterans and VA health care providers, while accommodating individual masking preferences," Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a statement Friday.
"We're trying to be as open as possible to Veteran and clinician and staff preferences alike, while aligning with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines," he said.
The announcement coincided with the three-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a veteran at a VA medical facility.
Since then, more than 834,000 patients within the VA health system have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 24,308 have died, including 259 VA employees.
COVID-19 cases continue to drop nationwide, down nearly 20% in the last month, according to the CDC. However, an average 2,652 Americans continue to die from the coronavirus each week.
During a hearing Tuesday on VA accountability, Rep. Matthew Rosendale, R-Mont., pressed Elnahal on the department's masking requirement, saying a constituent had been denied care at a VA clinic for refusing to wear a mask.
Noting that very few people in the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing were wearing masks, he asked when the mandate would be lifted.
Elnahal said VA must follow CDC guidelines but also should be as "open as possible to veteran and clinician and staff preferences."
"We have taken the opportunity to maximally relax the masking restrictions in our facilities according to CDC guidelines based on transmission levels locally," Elnahal said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime