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Michigan Hospital 'Cautiously Optimistic' About New Mask Rules

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On the one hand, surgical masks are just medical supplies. Non-pharmaceutical interventions are what epidemiologists call them. On the other hand, over the past year, they became much more than that - a symbol of how far life is from normal. So the CDC's new guidance that vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most settings has been greeted as a major pandemic milestone. President Biden called it a great day for the country.

It's easy to forget that just a month ago, parts of the country were dealing with some of their worst surges of the pandemic - places like Michigan, where Dr. Barbara Ducatman is the chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. We wanted to hear how this moment feels to her, so she joins us now. Welcome.

BARBARA DUCATMAN: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So how do things feel right now at your hospital? Because I'm looking at Oakland County, and your case rates are still nearly three times the national average. Is that right?

DUCATMAN: Well, we're very cautiously optimistic. Of course, this is a great breakthrough to hear that the CDC has recommended that fully vaccinated patients - people can take off their masks. But we're still seeing quite high levels of COVID, so we're hoping that people continue to get vaccinated and that unvaccinated people continue to wear a mask.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, a month ago, Michigan was in the middle of a pretty horrible COVID surge. And the Detroit Free Press published a commentary from you where you said you wished that people could see your COVID units to understand why it was so important to keep wearing masks. I know it's been a whole month since then, but how did you feel? What was your reaction to the CDC's new mask guidance? Are you comfortable with it?

DUCATMAN: I think I'm sort of comfortable with it. Of course, since what we've seen in Michigan is different than many other places in the country, as I said, we're a little more cautious and a little less optimistic than everyone else. But we'd like to think that we're moving in the right direction. Our numbers are coming down. And looking ahead, we're planning to have more surges just because we're not certain whether or not everyone's going to get vaccinated, everyone's going to wear a mask who needs to wear a mask and whether new variants play any role in any of this.

CHANG: Are you worried at all that people who are not vaccinated - that they will stop wearing masks as well?

DUCATMAN: Oh, yes. That is definitely a concern for us. The hospital will still enforce mask-wearing as a health care facility, and that's in the guidelines. But I think even if they didn't have those guidelines, we'd still want to keep our people in masks and, to the extent possible, our patients and visitors in masks.

CHANG: Well, I know that it is very hard to predict the future, but with cases generally trending downwards, with vaccinations still ongoing, even though the pace that they are going at is slowing down, what are you anticipating the summer to look like at your hospital?

DUCATMAN: We anticipate that our numbers have been dropping actually fairly precipitously and more quickly than our previous - this is our third surge - than our previous two surges. And I think that's because we've had younger patients in this surge. So for the most part, they're getting out of the hospital a little earlier. But we're not planning on having no COVID patients. We're just hoping that going forward, the numbers keep dropping and that we don't have a fourth surge.

CHANG: Well, after the summer, I mean, I'm wondering how much you're thinking about the fall because we've been hearing a lot of epidemiologists say that herd immunity is probably out of reach at this point. There is a possibility of some sort of resurgence in the fall. How are you thinking and planning around that?

DUCATMAN: We're planning to have multiple surges going ahead. We certainly hope that we don't have to implement our plans, but we feel we're better to be safe. During the surge, we started flipping units to COVID, and we have a well-defined plan now of how we're going to flip units in and out of COVID surges. And looking forward, we're deciding how we're going to handle COVID over the long term, which might be another year - could be two years, could be forever.

CHANG: When you put it like that (laughter) I don't know how optimistic I feel. But I am curious. When you look back on this last year - you took over the Royal Oak Hospital in April of 2020, and that was right near the beginning of the first COVID wave. When you think about all that's unfolded over the course of the last year, what are some of the moments that most stay with you?

DUCATMAN: I think the moments that will stay with me are when we started admitting large numbers of COVID patients at the end of last March and we had lines of cars snaking around the building, trying to get people - trying to get tested for COVID, and the very first patients we put in the intensive care unit, and then the very first patients we took off ventilators and who walked out of the hospital. And we continue. Our nurses - I'll never forget the response by our nurses, our respiratory technicians, our nursing assistants. I mean, just everyone in the hospital pulled together. We're tired at the end of a year that's been a long year, but it's been just the biggest honor of my life to work with these people.

CHANG: Dr. Barbara Ducatman is the chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Thank you very much for joining us today.

DUCATMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.