ST. CLOUD — Amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases in central Minnesota, the area's largest health care system announced stricter rules for masks and visitors that are designed to protect patients, visitors and staff.

Effective Monday, patients and visitors ages 2 and older are required to wear medical-grade face masks at all facilities.

"Several studies have shown that some cloth masks may not provide enough protection against the virus, and specifically the now surging Omicron variant," according to a release issued Sunday by CentraCare, which has eight hospitals and more than 30 clinics in central Minnesota, as well as Carris Health facilities in west-central and southwest Minnesota.

Patients and visitors who arrive with cloth masks or neck gaiters will be given medical-grade masks.

CentraCare also is tightening visitor restrictions effective Tuesday. The stricter restrictions preclude visitors at hospitals except for limited situations including end-of-life care or guardians of minor patients or those with cognitive disabilities. In those situations, patients are limited to one healthy visitor for the entire hospital stay.

At clinics, the only visitors allowed will be one healthy person for adult patients with cognitive, physical or developmental disabilities, and two healthy adults for minor patients. Additional minors are not allowed.

"With an alarming increase in the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, we're taking these steps to protect the health and safety of our patients, visitors and staff," said Dr. George Morris, incident commander for CentraCare's COVID-19 response team, in the release. "We urge the public to help us during this outbreak by wearing a mask, getting vaccinated and boosted and avoiding large crowds or gatherings until transmission decreases in our region."

As of Friday, St. Cloud Hospital had 118 patients being treated for COVID-19, making up 25% of those being treated in the hospital. Nearly three-fourths of the intensive care beds were filled by COVID-19 patients.

Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties all fall below the statewide average for people with at least one vaccine dose.