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The Student Voice Of Contra Costa College, San Pablo, Calif.

The Advocate

Advocates protest end of SF mandate for health workers to wear masks, raising questions over the future of the policy in the Bay Area

On Tuesday, April 16, dozens of “Keep Masks in Health Care” demonstrators gathered outside San Francisco City Hall, protesting the ending of a county mask mandate. 

An order from the health department that requires personnel to wear masks in many healthcare settings expires at the end of April.

The demonstration was spearheaded by local organization Senior and Disability Action, along with 10 other supporting groups, and featured several speakers who shared their perspectives on why mask-wearing in medical facilities was important.

“For me, a mask is a symbol of love,” said Alice Wong, noted activist, writer, and founder of the Disability Visibility Project. “You see, I am a high risk disabled person who has a tracheostomy in my neck…Since I can’t breathe through my nose or mouth, wearing a mask isn’t effective. I depend on the people around me, such as all of you, to protect me. We are interdependent on one another. We keep each other safe.

“And I’m enraged we even have to come out here and demand the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) continue the requirement that personnel in healthcare settings wear masks,” Wong continued. “No one should risk their lives when they have to go to the hospital or to a clinic for dialysis or chemotherapy. The bar is so low with this request, they just have to continue as usual, they don’t have to do anything.”

Partway through the demonstration, attendees crossed Grove Street and regrouped in front of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. A handful of demonstrators then continued to the offices of Dr. Susan Philip, the SFDPH Health Officer who had signed the health order on personnel masking, to deliver a letter asking Philip to keep the order in place. 

The group’s letter addressed both practical health challenges and questions of equity and power, stating “many of the highest-risk patients, such as infants and people on oxygen, physically cannot mask…It’s not fair, and often not practical, to put the burden on individual patients to ask their medical providers to wear masks…Furthermore, this is a racial justice issue: Black and Hispanic or Latino Americans get COVID at higher rates, and Black patients suffer from Long COVID at higher rates than white people. Our city’s commitment to equity must compel us to take action.”

Marked by Covid co-founder Kristin Urquiza read the letter out loud to SFDPH staff member Marise Rodriguez, who accepted it on behalf of Philip.

According to Senior and Disability Action, this was not the first time advocates had attempted to reach Philip. 

“Members of Masks for Equity, a group organized by Senior and Disability Action, have met with Dr. Susan Philip multiple times, most recently on March 14,” said Senior and Disability Action member Allegra Heath-Stout in an email. 

“She [Philip] was not receptive to our request to keep and improve the health order…Masks for Equity members decided to write the statement (at this link, with list of signatories under the text) and ask individuals and organizations to sign on in order to show the widespread support for keeping our communities safe in this way.”

In an emailed response to this news organization, San Francisco Department of Public Health cited “high vaccination rates” and “availability of effective treatments” as some of their reasons for dropping the mandate.

“The San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) guidance remains in alignment with  the California Department of Public Health, and CDC,” said the department. “Following the designated winter respiratory virus period, covered healthcare facilities are now able to address respiratory viruses through standard infection control policies and practices, eliminating the need for an ongoing health order for masking beyond the end of April 2024.” 

Dozens of organizations and more than 200 individuals signed the letter delivered by demonstrators. One such signatory is Dr. Noha Aboelata, founder of Roots Community Health in Oakland.

“Organized medicine’s retreat from masking is shameful,” wrote Aboelata in a May 2023 Lake County Record Bee op-ed, shared with this news organization in response to a request for comment. “It is not data driven, and there is no experiential evidence to support the decision to de-mask. That is why hospital-issued statements fail to cite science for their policy changes.

“Amid the dropping of precautions in most other settings, I’ve heard repeatedly from vulnerable individuals that the hospital was the one and final place they could feel safe,” Aboelata’s opinion piece continued “But this is no longer true. Now, many hospitalized patients must be prepared to fight a new infection on top of whatever necessitated their hospitalization in the first place, simply because their care team “opted” to unmask.”

Other Bay Area counties also have health care mask orders that appear set to expire at the end of April. As of publication, attempts to contact the Alameda and Contra Costa public health departments have not been successful.

San Francisco Department of Public Health did not respond to specific questions regarding hospital-acquired infections or the waves of COVID that the country has experienced each of the past three summers, outside the winter masking period.


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    AnonymousMay 2, 2024 at 5:56 am

    Thank you for this great piece! As Dr. Noha Aboelata says in her op-ed, our vaccines, though amazing, do not prevent transmission.

    And it’s unacceptable to allow any of us to fall by the wayside due to a preventable healthcare-acquired Covid infection, just because SF DPH is unwilling to do their job and require the most basic infection control in healthcare settings.

    And in addition to the excellent points in SDA’s letter about how many vulnerable patients can’t even mask — some people are also unconscious or vomiting when brought to the ER — multiple studies show that universal masking is much more effective than one-way masking. The argument that “you can just wear a mask yourself” is insufficient.

    And regarding SF DPH’s reply that we have available treatments, so it’s OK to get rid of the healthcare staff masking requirement, a couple points:
    -How does the existence of available treatments make it OK to allow patients to be infected with a BSL-3 level virus? Especially when Long Covid is not a rare outcome, and there are zero cures for it?This is a terrible argument.
    -Paxlovid is no longer free, and many people can’t access it at all (or take it — including children under 12)
    Thanks so much for covering this. Wonderful piece!