Individuals will no longer be required to wear face masks throughout all Veterans Affairs medical facilities, a mandate which had been in place since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, department officials announced Friday.

The policy change came one day before the three-year anniversary of the first confirmed COVID-19 case at a VA medical center.

Over the last 36 months, more than 857,000 individuals affiliated with the VA health care system have contracted the virus, with more than 24,000 deaths.

But case numbers have dropped significantly in recent months, both within the department and across the country. There were fewer than 6,000 active cases across all VA medical facilities on Thursday night, down 17% over the last month and less than half the total from three months ago.

The new masking policy at VA will still require all patients, employees and visitors to wear face masks in certain sensitive areas of health centers, or when local officials determine that higher health protection levels need to be put in place for safety reasons.

However, local leaders will now be allowed to conduct facility risk assessments to “determine if it is appropriate for masking to be optional in certain areas at their facility.” Masking will still be optional in those cases, but not required.

“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.

“We’re trying to be as open as possible to veteran and clinician and staff preferences alike, while aligning with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”

As of March 1, some 1,444 VA employees across the health care system were unable to work due to COVID-19 diagnoses. In January 2022, during a peak of the pandemic across America, that number had topped 15,000 (about 4% of the total workforce).

VA officials said masking requirements will be unchanged in chemotherapy units, acute inpatient medical/surgical units, intensive care units, post-transplant units, dialysis units and other high-risk areas.

Masking will also be required at all times for individuals with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections or other respiratory issues. VA recommends checking policies before traveling to any facility.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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