Swine flu spurs limits on hospital visits

Hoping to curb the spread of H1N1 and seasonal flu, hospitals in San Luis Obispo County have revised their visitor policies by limiting the number of visitors per patient and restricting children.

The altered policies mark the first time local hospitals have ramped up precautions specifically for H1N1 by enforcing an age limit for visitors, officials said.

“We have taken increased precaution every flu season,” French Hospital spokeswoman Megan Maloney said, including putting out sanitizer stations and having masks available.

Since H1N1 was first detected in the United States in April, symptoms with the virus have ranged from mild to severe, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most people who have been sick have recovered without needing medical treatment, the CDC said.

However, the agency notes that, as with the annual seasonal flus, the swine flu has led to some hospitalizations and deaths in higher-risk patients with underlying medical issues.

Some changes are also being made at California Men’s Colony and Atascadero State Hospital, which have on-site medical facilities.

The decision to revise visitor policies came partly from recommendations from the CDC and the county Department of Public Health, hospital officials said.

French Hospital and Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital and Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton will only allow visitors 16 and older who are feeling well. And the number of visitors will be capped at two at a time per patient.

Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria has also taken such precautions, Maloney said.

French is part of Catholic Healthcare West Central Coast Hospitals, along with Arroyo Grande and Marian Medical. Sierra Vista and Twin Cities are owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.

The policies took effect this week.

Maloney said the reason for the age limit this season is because children are the most vulnerable to H1N1 and could also be carriers of the strain.

All hospitals will allow exceptions on a case-by-case basis, such as family members visiting terminally ill patients or teenage fathers, officials said.

“For example, if a person’s mother is dying, we certainly shouldn’t deny the family an opportunity to be with her,” said Ron Yukelson, spokesman for Sierra Vista.

Previous long-standing policies at French, Sierra Vista and Twin Cities did not have age limits for visitors or restrictions on the numbers of visitors per patient, officials said.

Twin Cities changed its visitor policies permanently to also help curb infections, hospital spokeswoman Faye Fraser said. ASH is also restricting visitors younger than 16, hospital spokesman Craig Dacus said.

Administrators at the hospital for the criminally insane enacted the policy last Friday, and it will continue until further notice, Dacus said.

The change will affect a relatively small number of people, he said, because there have been few visitors who are minors, and they have always required permission from a clinical administrator.

Three patients were diagnosed with H1N1 in the last two weeks, and one patient was diagnosed Thursday, Dacus said.

Any patients exhibiting any signs of influenza are moved into a special unit to help prevent an outbreak, Dacus said.

In addition, staff members were offered the H1N1 vaccine. To date, 1,000 of the 2,300 staff members have been vaccinated.

Patients under the age of 24 or having an underlying medical condition that may put them at risk were also offered the vaccine. About 300 patients have received the vaccine.

“The vaccine was given out of public safety and as a security for staff and patients,” Dacus said. “We want to make sure that we have a safe working environment and do as much as we can to prevent a spread of the virus.”

The California Men’s Colony has not changed its visitor policy, said spokesman Andrew Pitoniak. Any inmate who contracts the virus will be placed in quarantine, he said.

“If an inmate gets the swine flu, no one is seeing him — not young, not old or in between,” Pitoniak said.