BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)– While most are trying to move on from the pandemic of the last three years, some Bay Staters feel as though they are being left behind as pandemic-era safety measures come to an end.

The one domino left standing of COVID-19 masking mandates fell on Friday — as health care settings lifted the requirement that patients and doctors alike wear the personal protective equipment that slows the spread of COVID.

“I don’t feel that in a health care setting I should be potentially exposed to further harm as somebody who’s already a vulnerable person,” said Goshen resident Jennifer Ritz Sullivan, who has a disability that puts her at greater risk from COVID-19 and requires her to visit the doctor every week.

There were 979 new, confirmed cases of COVID in Massachusetts in the past week, bringing the total confirmed cases to 2,038,680, according to the Department of Public Health. There were 15 new, confirmed deaths and a total of 174 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 last week in the state.

Ritz Sullivan had been dreading Mother’s Day — a reminder of her mom whom she lost in December 2020 to COVID — when she caught the virus for the first time two weeks ago from her husband. He had been wearing a mask, she said, but caught it at work from another employee who was not.

Though the virus might be mild for some, Ritz Sullivan said she is the “sickest I’ve ever been,” and is worried that Long COVID may further disable her.

Over the last three years, Ritz Sullivan has isolated herself from most of society, ordering groceries and having them brought out to her car instead of going inside of the store, and retreating into her home to minimize risk of catching the virus. But now she has to choose between the medical care she needs and potentially exposing herself to COVID, she said.

“I suppose there’s some folks who get mild symptoms, but for me this is the sickest I’ve ever been. I mean everything from violent vomiting to cold symptoms, everything. And to have it for the first time as the emergency is being lifted, having that combined with Mother’s Day weekend. There’s such a level of coolness that I’m feeling right now. I can only do so much to keep myself safe. I’m doing my best but it’s not enough. You can’t individualize your way out of public health,” she said.

Ritz Sullivan is part of a group of advocates who participated in a “virtual speakout” last week for the state Department of Public Health to reinstate the mask mandate in health care settings. Activists met on Zoom to discuss the changing requirement, drove vans around the State House and Department of Public Health with signs reading “Give Us Care, Not COVID,” posted a sign on the State House steps that said “We Do Not Consent to Getting COVID At The Doctor” and started a letter-writing campaign to legislators and DPH officials.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Robbie Goldstein said last week that the end of the emergency order “is not the end of COVID.” Goldstein said the department decided to rescind the mandate after in-depth consideration, conversation and deliberation, a DPH spokesperson said.

“COVID-19 Community Transmission Levels, as monitored by CDC, are down across the Commonwealth, with no county experiencing high transmission since February of this year. So, too, are COVID-19 Community Levels, which are important in monitoring the state of our hospitals and health care systems and can be used to identify when to implement prevention strategies, like masking. Neighboring states have similarly moved away from mandatory, universal masking in health care and have pivoted to a strategy based on individual facility-level criteria,” DPH spokesperson Ann Scales said.

The Healey administration will require facilities to develop “proactive” plans for reviving COVID-19 prevention strategies — potentially including mask mandates — if warning lights begin flashing again, Goldstein said.

He did not outline any threshold or trend that would trigger state action, saying that the department wants hospitals and other facilities to “make local decisions” based on the circumstances they face. Health care facilities must also continue supplying masks to staff, patients and visitors who want them.

Mass General Brigham came under fire last week when it sent out its new masking policy update, saying patients could not ask staff members to wear a mask “because our policies no longer require it. Our system is adhering to current public health recommendations,” the Boston Business Journal reported.

Disability advocates said that the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. “While the DPH has the right, I suppose, to choose to lift the mask mandate and if they do, hospitals get to choose whether they enforce it, what hospitals can’t be free from is their obligation under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. And if someone’s disabled, and they’re at increased risk from COVID, then it would seem to us an absolutely textbook reasonable accommodation for patients to be able to request,” said Colin Killick, executive director of Disability Policy Consortium.

The hospital has since updated this policy online with a new statement that includes, “there are circumstances when masking is an appropriate medical intervention. In those circumstances, caregivers and/or patients will continue to mask, per our policies. Patients can ask, but providers determine when and if masking in a particular situation is clinically necessary,” according to the Boston Business Journal article.

In addition to Mass General Brigham, Boston Medical Center, Tufts Medicine, Beth Israel Lahey Health and UMass Memorial Health are among the hospitals that ended mask requirements last week. Some doctors and hospital staff will likely continue to wear masks out of personal preference, but for at least one at Mass General Brigham, one-way masking didn’t feel like enough.

Jayda Jones, a master’s student in public health and radiology technical assistant interning at the Boston-based hospital, quit on Thursday — the day before patients and other medical staff would have been allowed to de-mask. “We’re just waiting until there’s another major COVID-19 outbreak within the hospital to happen again in order for us to switch to wearing masks again — that’s the new Mass General Hospital policy. But from my point of view, it’s always necessary because the pandemic has never ended,” she said.

Jones said she was disappointed to resign from the hospital, where she first secured an internship in high school because of her interest in public health. Since then, she has worked at other medical facilities, but came back to MGH for the last year of her public health master’s program.

“This isn’t a disease that just magically goes away. This manifests in several different ways in the future. We know that. We’ve seen an increase in heart attacks, we’ve seen an increase in adverse cardiovascular outcomes, especially in younger groups from 20 to 39 years old,” she said. “The disabled community isn’t saying we have to go back into lockdown, forcing you back into your house. But we’re saying that when you go into public spaces — especially places they can’t avoid — please do what you can to make it accessible for them.”

When asked, a Mass General Brigham spokesperson said they could not comment on individual employee matters under hospital policy, but “we are committed to ensuring that patients can access medical care in a safe and appropriate manner.”

“We always take appropriate precautions to protect all patients. Our policies are based on public health guidance and that of our infection control experts. At this time, based on this guidance, universal masking is no longer medically necessarily [sic] to protect patients from COVID-19,” said Michael Morrison, the hospital’s senior director of communications

The Massachusetts Public Health Association and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugees Advocacy Coalition had also warned against lifting the mandate. “Returning to the pre-pandemic status quo, however, ignores important lessons learned and potentially leaves the Commonwealth open to the ravages of the next large-scale public health crisis,” said Oami Amarasingham, deputy director of MPHA.