Swine flu fears prompting California hospitals to bar children, limit visitors
Alarmed by the spread of the H1N1 flu, local hospitals restricted visitors this week, barring children and capping the number of visitors a patient can see at once.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center this week raised the minimum age for visitors from 12 to 18 and restricted the number of visitors for patients at greatest risk of becoming infected with H1N1, including those in labor and delivery, or in pediatric and neonatal intensive care units, according to Dr. Rekha Murthy, medical director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai.
Murthy said restrictions on younger visitors make sense because children are at greater risk of catching the H1N1 flu, and may infect others before they show symptoms.
“This epidemic is different from the typical flu season, and we’re having to respond in a different way,” Murthy said. “It’s spreading like wildfire in the community and we need to protect the patients who are most vulnerable.”
Cedars-Sinai had restricted visits to at-risk patients during the spring outbreak of H1N1 flu, and the change was appreciated by patients’ families, Murthy said.
She said many area hospitals are considering similar visitor restrictions, especially those that serve transplant patients and others with compromised immune systems at risk of infection.
“Every hospital has to weigh their own populations at risk,” she said. Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys has barred children under 16 from visiting inpatient units or being left unattended in lobbies, waiting rooms or other common areas.
Hospital officials have asked those with flu-like symptoms not to visit, and have limited patients to two visitors at a time. Childrens Hospital Los Angeles has limited patients to two visitors at a time. Within the next week, UCLA Medical Center will bar children under 16 from pediatric, perinatal, neonatal and child life areas unless preauthorized by hospital staff, spokesman Enrique Rivero said.
Hospital officials have already started telling would-be visitors who have had the flu not to enter the hospital until 24 hours after their symptoms disappear, Rivero said.
Staff will be screening visitors at hospital entrances in coming days, posting the new guidelines on the premises and talking to patients and their families about the guidelines during admission and treatment in the pediatric clinic, he said. Hospital groups said the new restrictions are spreading statewide.
On Monday, Stanford Hospital & Clinics officials announced they had barred visitors under 16 except in the emergency room, where visitors will be asked to wear masks. Officials at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and UC Irvine Douglas Hospital are warning visitors with flu-like symptoms to stay home, but have not imposed any new restrictions, although that could change as they evaluate the spread of H1N1 in the community, spokesmen said.
“Every hospital is absolutely looking at its visitation policies,” said Jan Emerson, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Assn., which represents more than 400 hospitals statewide. Emerson said the changes hospitals are making to their visiting policies have varied based on a hospital's size, whether the population they serve is urban or rural, and the size of local H1N1 outbreaks.
Los Angeles County has seen more flu cases and hospitalizations than this time last year, with 34 outbreaks during the week of Oct. 4 to 10, the most recent period with available data, according to the county’s Department of Public Health. The department reported 16 severe pediatric flu cases this season, including four deaths. Los Angeles County’s three public hospitals — County-USC, Harbor-UCLA and Olive View — have not restricted visitors, although officials plan to meet Friday to review visitor guidelines, said spokesman Michael Wilson.
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Photo: A nurse prepares the injectable version of the swine flu vaccine. Credit: Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press.
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