The first day of seeing patients without a mask was, for Sterling Ransone Jr., MD, “unsettling.”
“I can’t tell you how weird it was the first day that I walked down the hall from my office to where my exam rooms are, to not have a mask on after 3 years of the habit,” said Dr. Ransone, a family physician in Deltaville, Va., and board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
The White House recently lifted the public health emergency order that overhauled the way health care providers operated and advised patients over the past 3 years.
For Dr. Ransone, this transition entails getting used to his bare face, reminding patients of the latest and varying symptoms of the virus, and parting ways with sick patients if they refuse to wear a mask.
As states, hospitals, and health care systems around the country relax their mask mandates for care providers, clinicians will have to fall back on their own policies that patients with potential symptoms mask up.
“Now that it’s up to our offices, we have to have a little bit more backbone,” Dr. Ransone said. “If they’re not willing to follow a health-related policy that will protect the vulnerable, we will not see them. And so for us, it’s been pretty straightforward.”
Despite the policy, Dr. Ransone has cared for patients who don’t disclose they are feeling sick until he enters the room.
“And I wasn’t masked,” Dr. Ransone said. So, “I will wear masks for the rest of the day just to try to protect the rest of my patients in case I was exposed.”
Masks are optional for both patients and staff at the University of Maryland Medical System, but Niharika Khanna, MD, MBBS, said she still wears one with her patients, and her office advises staff to do the same. If patients are experiencing respiratory symptoms, like a cough, they are asked to wear one.
“When the patient first walks up to you, you have no idea what they have,” Dr. Khanna said.
Dr. Khanna is especially mindful of immunocompromised patients who have cancer, and Dr. Ransone cares for several patients who have received kidney transplants and are on potent immunosuppressive drugs.
“I know they’re appreciating our efforts to protect them, and I think the other patients are realizing that it’s a wise thing to do,” Dr. Ransone said.
Some patients have anxiety about the end of masking in doctor offices, but others have been excited about interacting more with their care teams, according to William Dahut, MD, chief scientific officer for the American Cancer Society. Many clinicians will advise their most immunocompromised patients the same as they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s always been guidelines that oncologists have given to patients who are immunocompromised – we always told them to avoid crowded places, crowded scenes, be outside more than inside,” Dr. Dahut said. “Those general recommendations will continue.”
The AAFP supports masking to limit COVID’s spread, but the “most important thing people can do is to get vaccinated,” Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, MPH, MBA, president of the AAFP, said.
But the accessibility of vaccinations is also shifting.