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Hospitals set visitor rules

Thu., Oct. 1, 2009

Flu concerns prompt restrictions in high-risk areas

Two of the Inland Northwest’s top hospitals are restricting visiting in high-risk treatment areas starting today to stem the potential spread of swine flu.

At Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, only immediate family members at least 18 years old will be allowed to visit patients in four intensive care units as well as the Birth Place maternity area.

Until now, Sacred Heart had few restrictions on visiting as part of a policy of encouraging family and community members to aid in patient recovery.

The rapid worldwide spread of the H1N1 influenza virus, which is responsible for the so-called swine flu, has caused medical center officials to rethink their policy, said Dr. Roy Almeida, director of epidemiology and infection control at Sacred Heart.

Providence Holy Family Hospital in north Spokane is implementing similar restrictions at its high-risk units, Almeida said.

“The bottom line behind this is we are trying to protect our patients and families,” he said.

Limiting visitors in areas with high-risk patients is expected to reduce the chance of flu being passed among patients, family members and staff, he said.

In addition, both facilities are posting and enforcing new guidelines for all visitors. Signs are being put up at entrances asking visitors to stay out of the facilities if they have flu-like symptoms, such as a persistent cough. Some visitors with symptoms may be asked to wear a mask to contain a potential virus.

“We don’t want people who are sick to visit,” he said.

Hand sanitizer dispensers are being installed at entrances and in elevator lobbies, and visitors are encouraged to use them, he said.

In addition, visitors will be asked to check in at the nurse station prior to entering a patient room.

In the past, visitors have generally been free to come and go from the medical center, he said.

While the new visiting policy is being implemented in response to the current influenza pandemic, it was not clear how long it would remain in effect, Almeida said, explaining that it may become a permanent policy.

“We are specifically doing this for the flu season,” he said.

The intensive care units with limited visiting are for adult, cardiac, pediatric and neo-natal patients.

Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene is also taking precautions by posting signs asking people who may feel sick to stay home, said Paula Davenport, spokeswoman at the center. Masks and hand sanitizers are being made available, too, and additional precautions will be considered, she said.

Deaconess and Valley medical centers report that they currently screens visitors to intensive care areas and has posted signs cautioning sick visitors to stay away.

Children and adults up to age 24 are among the populations considered at risk for developing severe complications from the current H1N1 virus, along with patients who have compromised health. Older adults appear to have greater immunity from the virus causing the outbreak.

Washington is one of 26 states showing widespread flu activity as of mid-September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The early onset of flu is alarming public health officials, who can’t predict what will happen when the traditional flu season reaches its peak in January or February.

Almeida said Sacred Heart sees about 20 patients a day with flu symptoms, and admits some of them for treatment. Inpatient treatment follows a protocol for containing the potential spread of the virus by isolating patients and keeping them out of public waiting areas, he said.

Deaconess also has seen an increase in flu admissions, said spokeswoman Julie Holland.

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