Patients and visitors arriving at Concord Hospital masked up and ready to go were caught off-guard when staff told them their cloth masks were no longer adequate and they would have to wear hospital-provided blue paper procedure masks instead.

The policy change, which went into effect earlier this month, brings Concord Hospital in line with other New Hampshire hospitals where cloth masks are being banned, in favor of disposable, medical-grade masks.

Jenn Dearborn with Concord Hospital’s public affairs department said the change reflects the fact that more personal protective equipment, like masks and gowns, are now available for use which makes it easier for hospitals to offer the masks. It’s also an acknowledgment that disposable masks offer better protection against COVID-19 than cloth masks.

“PPE supplies of masks are now at a level where we can provide all patients wearing a cloth mask a procedure mask. Procedure masks are more effective at protecting against COVID-19 when compared to cloth masks,” Dearborn said. “We are making this change because we can now safely supply patients with a procedure mask and still have an adequate supply for the hospital and practices.”

Cloth masks are currently the norm in most settings, most notably public schools where a debate over their efficacy is currently raging. On Friday, administrators at Deerfield Community School banished unmasked children to the gymnasium after the school board suddenly imposed a mask mandate with little notice. On Monday, they began turning unmasked children away.

Concord Hospital isn’t the only hospital requiring procedure masks. Lauren Collin-Cline, director of communications at Catholic Medical Center, said the Manchester hospital now requires people to wear either a paper procedure mask, or a KN-95, or N-95-type mask.

“The reason for this is consistency in filtration,” she said. “Cloth masks vary widely in materials, layers, and fit around the nose and we don’t know what level of protection they offer. In the healthcare setting, we need to be confident in the level of protection people have given the current level of transmission in the community.”

Collins-Cline said the hospital did allow for cloth masks in the summer when the virus levels were going down. But that changed as cases have gone up and the delta variant is rampant. 

“We have always had a mask requirement. Earlier in the summer, we did relax to allow cloth masks but went back to procedural and higher when the positivity rate began to climb back up,” she said.

Adam Bagni, director of communications and community relations at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, said the use of facility-provided masks has been required throughout the pandemic at their facility.

This is to ensure the quality and cleanliness of every mask in our facilities. We carefully select and assess the masks that we provide to staff, patients, and visitors, for traits like performance, layering, and breathability. We issue a new mask each day, or visit, to ensure they are both sanitary and effective,” he said.

Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Wentworth-Douglass, said that in order for a cloth mask to be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19, it must be double-layered, comfortable, fit snugly, and easy to breathe through.

While cloth masks are fine for general settings, like the grocery store, medical masks should be used in hospitals and health clinics, Wassell said.

“Medical-grade masks are typically prioritized for healthcare settings,” she said.

The debate over masks and mandates began almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic started, in part because public health officials told the general public — falsely, it turned out — that masks were unnecessary.

“There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a 60 Minutes interview on March 8, 2020. “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”

Fauci now acknowledges he wasn’t telling the truth, out of concern there wouldn’t be enough masks for health care workers.