The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday relaxed mandatory masking requirements at medical facilities across the country, dropping one of the final vestiges of the coronavirus pandemic of the last three years.

The move means thousands of daily visitors to VA’s 170 medical centers and hundreds of other outpatient clinics will no longer be required to wear a mask for entry, except in limited circumstances.

The announcement came almost three months after VA leaders relaxed mask requirements for non-medical facilities, and almost three weeks after the national emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic in America was officially ended.

In a statement, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said the move was made “to reflect our new reality” in the post-pandemic era. “Except for the highest-risk areas and situations, masking will be greatly relaxed for veterans and clinicians at VA health care facilities.”

The new rule applies to both visitors and staff. Individuals with COVID-19 infections or suspected to be infected will still be required to wear a mask upon entering the medical facilities.

Under the new policy, facility leaders can require mask wearing based on local health conditions. Patients can also request that staffers wear a mask if they so choose.

Masks will continue to be required for staff, veterans, and visitors in “high-risk” areas, such as transplant units, emergency and urgent care, chemotherapy units and certain community living centers.

As of Monday evening, there were 1,998 active cases of coronavirus among patients spread across 130 medical centers.

Since March 2020, more than 874,856 patients linked to VA health centers have contracted COVID-19. Of those, 24,679 have died from complications related to the illness, a rate of about 21 per day.

However, those cases have dropped significantly over the last year. Since January 1, the department has recorded about 49,000 new cases and 940 deaths, a rate of less than seven per day.

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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