As COVID-19 cases rise, hospitals bring back visitor restrictions

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DOVER – COVID-19 cases are steadily on the rise, and just as hospitals and other health care facilities were beginning to relax restrictions on visitors and in care services, some are beginning to rethink and retighten their policies.

A joint statement was issued Tuesday by the leaders of all 30 of the state’s hospitals, through the New Hampshire Hospital Association, calling for all New Hampshire residents to remain vigilant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by continuing to practice the public health safety measures known to help prevent transmission.

“Keeping patients and the public safe through vigilant prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 is a priority for every hospital in New Hampshire,” said New Hampshire Hospital Association President Steve Ahnen.  “As cases continue to rise, physician and nurse leaders across the state are urging all residents to practice the simple steps we know can help stop the spread of the virus: wearing a face mask, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands, and staying home when you don’t feel well.”

A joint statement from chief medical officers and chief nursing officers statewide said, “We want to make it clear that our doctors, nurses, hospitals and health care systems across the state are standing with our public health colleagues as a united front in our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative that every New Hampshire resident join us in taking the necessary steps to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.”

“Our hospitals and health care facilities will continue requiring staff, patients, and visitors to follow public safety protocols, including mask-wearing, screenings upon entry to our facilities, and limitation of visitors and caregivers. We ask that you do the same: wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet apart, avoid crowds, wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough and stay home if you are experiencing any respiratory or unexplained symptoms, such as a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or other common COVID-19 symptoms. We do this to keep our patients, visitors and health care workers safe. And when you do this, you’re helping to keep the ones you love and others around you safe.”

According to the statement, COVID-19 cases are trending upward in all regions of the state, and while hospitalizations remain relatively low today, cases have more than doubled in the past month.

“This concerning increase puts our entire health care system at risk. If these trends continue, doctors, nurses, therapists, environmental services, security, food services,  support staff and so many others who have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic since March will suffer additional stress and risk their own infection, illness and mortality. The decision to continue these safety measures is driven by data and guidance from health care experts, not politics. Public health draws on data to chart the route from where we are now, to where we need to go. It keeps hospitals and health care facilities safe places for patients to receive both routine and emergency care as needed. These measures will not only help prevent another catastrophic surge in hospital admissions and COVID-19 deaths, but they will also help to keep our schools and businesses open and our economy thriving. But we need your help. Working together with you, we are confident that we can make a difference and keep this dangerous virus under control.”

Matt Bennett, director of patient quality and caregiver experiences at York Hospital, said they are very concerned over what they are seeing in their community.

“The hospital has stayed in a good place,” said Bennett. “We have been very careful with our screening procedures. It’s a real balancing act. We want to allow our patients to have visitors, but safety must be our first priority.”

Bennett said the hospital administration looked further at their current visitor guidelines and intend to scale back further this week to make contact more restrictive.

“We are working closely with our infectious disease people to make sure we are scaling things back appropriately in response to the rising numbers in our community,” said Bennett. “It is important for us to remain open and safe for our patients, so we feel this is an important step to take for both patients’ and caregivers’ safety.”

Margie Wachtel, a spokesperson for Greater Seacoast Community Health, which includes Families First, Goodwin Health and Lilac City Pediatrics, said they are considering shifting more of their visits to telehealth again.

“Telehealth is something we did more of last spring and then scaled back a bit,” said Wachtel. “Also, we ask patients to come in alone or, if necessary, with only one person. I think that is it right now for tighter restrictions.”

Wachtel said Seacoast Community Health is moving COVID-19 testing indoors, instead of using tents outdoors, because winter is coming.

“We constructed two negative-pressure rooms at our Goodwin location,” she said. “At Families First, we are using the room where we previously provided child care and playgroups, which we are not able to do now because of COVID, and we have special filters in place.”

Jackie Dockham, director of infection control at Exeter Hospital, said they are discussing a return to more restrictive practices, but have not yet made the decision.

“When all this started, we were only allowing comfort visits, one person for someone who was at end of life,” said Dockham. “We allowed one birthing partner. Then we started looking at it on a case-by-case basis and some people were allowed one visitor for one hour. The visitors have to wear a mask and we test them for COVID.”

Three weeks ago, Dockham said, they began allowing visitors to stay for up to four hours, depending on the situation.

“It has been hard,” said Dockham. “As a nurse I understand the why, but it is so hard for families.”

If Exeter Hospital makes changes to their visitor policy, Dockham said the changes will be posted on the hospital’s website (https://www.exeterhospital.com/Home). She advises people to check the site before coming in.

Lynn Robbins, a spokesperson for Portsmouth Regional Hospital, said it has not made changes to its current policy.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely each day,” said Robbins.

Wentworth-Douglass has not changed its restrictions since August, but they are already pretty comprehensive and go department by department in some cases. In most cases, virtual visitation is listed as the preferred method. Otherwise, usually only one person or caregiver allowed with a patient, with proper masking and screening and testing procedures required.

Some area hospitals and health care facilities are already bringing back restrictions on visitors. Dartmouth-Hitchcock announced a return to more restrictive caregiver and visitor procedures as of Nov. 6.

In a press release, Dartmouth-Hitchcock said no visitors will be admitted to any of their facilities for inpatient or outpatient visits, except in the case of one of the eight specific exceptions relating to patients requiring caregivers, pediatric patients, labor and delivery and prenatal patients, perioperative patients, family meetings, patients at the end of life, and D-H employees and volunteers. The procedures remain in place until further notice.

These procedures apply to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, as well as D-H outpatient clinics and facilities including the Heater Road facility, the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative & Hospice Care, the Lyme Road clinic, and D-H Community Group Practice locations in Concord, Manchester, Nashua, and elsewhere in southern New Hampshire.

The updated procedures can be found on the D-H website at https://www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/patient-education/covid19-visitor-guidelines.html.

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