A major association for infection prevention professionals is strongly urging its members to continue masking in patient care areas even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its masking recommendations for healthcare workers a little over a week ago.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology on Monday cited indicators such as wastewater surveillance and increased COVID-19 case counts abroad as evidence of a potential wave of new COVID-19 cases in the coming months.

“Our members clearly understand that the pandemic is not over,” APIC said in a statement. “With more than 300 Americans still dying each week from COVID-19 and a virulent flu season predicted, now is not the time to risk patient or healthcare worker safety.”

CDC told healthcare facilities it can use its Community Transmission scale to decide if their workers child mask; locations within low-level transmission regions can ease masking standards. 

In addition to the oncoming flu season and evidence of COVID-19’s continued presence, APIC said the seven-day lag in CDC COVID-19 testing data could limit the ability to detect surges in real time.

“While APIC understands that many healthcare employees have grown weary of masking, we do not believe it is wise to discontinue this evidence-based, COVID-19 mitigation strategy,” the statement said. “As healthcare professionals, we are obligated to protect the vulnerable patients entrusted to our care. It is for this reason that we take annual flu shots, and stay up to date with other immunizations, including COVID-19. Requiring masks of anyone who enters a healthcare setting, including employees, helps to ensure the safest environment for our patients.”

The 15,000-member body said it is also worried a new COVID-19 surge could bring a return of masking mandates.

“Having a policy that changes back and forth is confusing to healthcare personnel and erodes trust,” it said. “Furthermore, rising COVID cases could lead to healthcare worker shortages, a situation we all want to avoid.”

APIC consultant Deborah Patterson Burdsall said masks had a use before the pandemic.

“Remember that a larger part of CDC’s respiratory etiquette was wearing masks for source control in healthcare during cold and flu season,” she said. “There is ample evidence that wearing source control reduces transmission of not only COVID-19 but other respiratory pathogens. 

“What some people don’t understand is that many long term care facilities have been stuck in N95s and goggles or face shields for what must seem like an eternity. The new CDC guidance does give the opportunity to focus on some of the evidence for PPE use. Just being able to work with a well fitting face mask may be a relief for some, but I would suggest it is premature to get rid of source control not only for healthcare personnel but also visitors and even residents in large group activities.”