As state drops mask mandate for health facilities, North Fork hospitals say they’re keeping them in place for now

Hospitals and medical facilities on the North Fork will be keeping their mask policies in place for the time being, despite New York State ending the requirement last month.

The Feb. 12 decision came from the New York State Department of Health. Facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, home healthcare and hospice agencies, diagnostic and treatment centers, physician offices, dental offices, local health departments and office-based surgery practices are no longer mandated to require their staff to use masks and can set their own masking policies.

According to Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital’s visitor policy, the hospital is “carefully evaluating” its policies and procedures following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in addition to the state health department.

“For now, our policy has not changed and everyone — patients, visitors, employees, students, vendors — must still wear well-fitting masks covering the nose and mouth in all Stony Brook Medicine hospitals, patient care settings and off-site clinic locations,” according to the hospital’s visitor policy.

In a recent interview, chief medical officer of Stony Brook Medicine Jonathan Buscaglia said there has been no pushback from the staff in the hospital’s decision to continue masking.

“Our hospital staff has been extremely supportive of our efforts to continue our masking policy,” he said. “We’re certainly aware that a minority of hospitals have decided to relax the mandate, but as far as Stony Brook Medicine is concerned, we are presently sticking with our ongoing efforts to mask in all areas of patient care.”

When asked, Mr. Buscaglia couldn’t comment if he expects the hospital’s policy to change any time soon.

“Certainly, we’re still in flu season and we still are starting to see a significant amount of respiratory illnesses with hospitalizations, so that is always affecting our decisions for all our safety precautions in terms of infectious diseases, infection control, but it’s very difficult for me to say when we expect that to change and if we expect that to change,” he said.

Riverhead’s Peconic Bay Medical Center will also maintain its mask policy, according to the hospital’s medical director, Jeffrey Zilberstein.

“Essentially, we’ve decided as a system that in a preponderance of concern for [our] patients and members, we’re going to continue to mask just because it remains to be a respiratory viral season,” he said. “We still see significant transmission of respiratory viruses and we want to make sure that we [not only] keep our patients safe but also our team members.”

The masking would be for all public areas. Dr. Zilberstein said he doesn’t expect the policy to be in place at the hospital forever. “It’s really going to be following where the data and science take us,” he said.

According to their mask protocol, New York University Langone, which has medical offices in Riverhead, Mattituck and Greenport, will require masking for their staff who have not been vaccinated against the virus.

“Staff are required to wear a mask on all NYU Langone owned or leased property if they have not received influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations per policy or after a positive COVID-19 test or COVID-19 exposure,” said Michael Phillips, the hospital’s Chief Epidemiologist, in a message to NYU Langone medical staff.

NYU Langone patients, visitors and staff are required to wear a mask if they are in an open setting where immunocompromised patients may be receiving care, in areas such as the emergency department or infusion suites, according to their protocol.

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 tracker, the positivity rate for COVID-19 in the county is at 5% positivity rate and has gone down .35% in the last seven days. In Suffolk County, 88.8% of the total population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 78.8% completed the primary series and 14.5% received the updated bivalent booster dose.