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Hospitals begin limiting visitors over H1N1 flu

The issue has become pressing for many facilities. 'This epidemic is different from the typical flu season, and we're having to respond in a different way,' one hospital official says.

October 21, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Alarmed by the spread of the H1N1 flu, hospitals throughout California and neighboring states restricted visitors this week, barring children and capping the number of visitors per patient.

In Los Angeles, Cedars- Sinai Medical Center on Monday raised the minimum age for visitors from 12 to 18 and restricted the number of visitors for patients at greatest risk for H1N1, including those in labor and delivery, or in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care units.

"This epidemic is different from the typical flu season, and we're having to respond in a different way," said Dr. Rekha Murthy, Cedars-Sinai's medical director of hospital epidemiology. "It's spreading like wildfire in the community and we need to protect the patients who are most vulnerable."

Recent restrictions include:

* Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys barred children under age 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.

* Stanford Hospital & Clinics has barred visitors under age 16 except in the emergency room, where visitors will be asked to wear masks.

The decision to restrict visitors remains at the discretion of hospitals. Although the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment earlier this month recommended that hospitals limit patients to four visitors at a time -- preferably age 12 or older -- many other states, including California, have not yet weighed in.

"We consider visiting policies an operational issue, not necessarily a public health issue," Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said Tuesday.

But the issue has become pressing for many facilities.

"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.

Officials from Los Angeles County's three public hospitals -- County-USC, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Olive View-UCLA Medical Center -- plan to meet Friday to review their visitor current policies, said spokesman Michael Wilson.

County-USC began restricting visitor access to those 14 and older after last spring's H1N1 outbreak, and additional restrictions are possible.

"It's one part of a whole set of policies we have at a time like this, during a pandemic, to protect patients and those coming in," said Dr. Paul Holtom, hospital epidemiologist.

Within 10 days, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center will bar children under age 16 from pediatric, perinatal, neonatal and child life areas unless authorized in advance by the hospital staff, said spokesman Enrique Rivero. Hospital officials already have started telling would-be visitors who have had the flu not to enter the hospital until 24 hours after their symptoms disappear, and plan to screen visitors at hospital entrances, Rivero said.

Outside the hospital Tuesday, Adrienne Tulal, 37, was anxious to learn if her young son would be allowed to visit her 71-year-old father once he was out of a scheduled six-hour brain surgery. Tulal's sister had warned her ahead of time that 5-year-old Gabriel, who is recovering from a cold, might not be allowed in the hospital. But nurses let Gabriel see his grandfather before the surgery, giving him a high-five.

Tulal, a radiology nurse from Rancho Cucamonga, said she understands the need to protect patients. The new restrictions, she acknowledged, could ease her father's recovery. "I don't want him getting anything," Tulal said. "It makes sense."

At hospitals where restrictions are in place, officials said they have heard few complaints.

"People understand it's both for the safety of their own children and for the protection of the patients," said County-USC's Holtom. "It is going to be many, many months before people are fully vaccinated."

In Los Angeles County, free H1N1 vaccination clinics for those who are uninsured and at high risk of infection will begin Friday. A full list of clinic sites is available on the county Department of Public Health's website. Those without access to the Internet can call 211 to find the nearest H1N1 clinic.

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molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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