Area hospitals have a message for anybody looking to visit a patient: If you're at all sick, stay home.
They're also discouraging people from using emergency rooms for treatment for the H1N1 virus unless symptoms are dire.
Hospitals nationwide are trying to curb visitations and unnecessary admittance associated with the H1N1 flu because they are being overwhelmed.
In an effort to slow the spread of the illness, also known as the swine flu, both coming and going from the hospitals, most facilities have tightened visitation policies and are now prescreening both patients and visitors.
"We prefer they don't come if they don't have to," said Janet O'Neill, spokesperson for Cottage Hospitals in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. "We've definitely been very vigilant."
That vigilance begins at the door.
Now, when people visit a Catholic Healthcare West facilities on the Central Coast - Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital and French Hospital in San Luis Obispo - the first thing they see is a "stop" sign.
Signs warn visitors, in both English and Spanish, not to enter if they have a fever or cough. It also states that only two visitors are allowed per patient, and children under 16 are not allowed into patient rooms.
Hand sanitizer stations and sterile masks are also available at both lobby and emergency-room doors.
"We've limited visitation to people 16 and older," said Kerin Masse, Marian's vice president of patient care services. "The reason for that is to protect our community. We know that those people are being hit the hardest with this flu."
Masse said the hospital's stricter policies protect both patients and children who visit them. She added that accommodations are being made for children with relatives who are in serious or critical condition, but those calls are left to the patients' doctors.
Marian and Lompoc Valley Medical Center are two of the local hospitals prescreening visitors.
Lompoc Valley Medical Center is barring visitors under 16 from its obstetrics department, and administrators are considering expanding that ban to the entire hospital, said Linda Everly, director of quality improvement, risk management and infection control.
Cottage Hospitals have not yet prohibited adolescent visitors, O'Neill said.
Any visitors with underlying medical conditions, such as heart and lung ailments, that make them more susceptible to suffering complications from H1N1 are discouraged from visiting local hospitals for their own safety.
"We do have people here at the hospital who have flu-like symptoms," explained Sandra Mugg, director of quality and patient safety infection control at Marian. "It just makes sense that we take precautions to protect the community."
The local guidelines are based on Centers for Disease Control recommendations. Other CDC recommendations include H1N1 vaccine for all health-care employees, use of N95 respirators and other protective devices, hand-sanitation stations placed throughout the facilities, and altered staffing and sick-time policies during the flu season.
Health-care workers are next in line behind pregnant women, children and people with underlying medical conditions when the vaccine becomes available. Until then, hospital workers, like everyone else, are relying on masks, hand sanitizer and the heightened awareness of visitors.
Because production and distribution of the H1N1 vaccine has been so slow, hospitals are utilizing all other means of protection.
The California Department of Public Health last week authorized the release of up to
50 percent of its stockpile of N95 masks to local health departments.
The federal government last week authorized the release of its last 234,000 doses of liquid Tamiflu.
Public health departments in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have recently received shipments of the H1N1 vaccine. Santa Barbara County is scheduling vaccination clinics.
Masks are required for visitors to the emergency rooms at Marian, Arroyo Grande and French hospitals, said Kathleen Hernandez, director of communications at Marian.
Meanwhile the disease continues to spread. According to the CDC, it is active in 48 states and last week was responsible for 19 pediatric deaths across the country, bringing the total to 114 since April.
Santa Barbara County has had a total of 37 people hospitalized with the H1N1 virus through last week. Three of those cases resulted in deaths. One other death, a 12-year-old girl from Santa Maria, could not be attributed to the virus because lab tests were negative for the virus.
Health-care providers emphasize that the majority of infections won't be any worse that the seasonal flu. They also ask people to seek care through their health-care providers and not visit emergency rooms unless their situation becomes critical.
"We don't want a slew of people coming to the emergency department. It's delaying the care for other people," O'Neill said. "People are coming in unnecessarily, and they are slowing down care for people who really need it."
November 3, 2009