The spread of H1N1 flu virus has prompted a change in the visiting policy at United Memorial Medical Center.
As a result, starting this week no one under the age of 18 is allowed to visit patients. Heretofore, as with many hospitals, visitors had to be at least 14 years old, although there was flexibility and reasonable exceptions were made.
"We're becoming more restrictive about visitors -- it's for patient safety," said UMMC spokeswoman Colleen Flynn. "We don't want them to become infected. The virus can be especially harmful to a patient with an already compromised immune system."
Also under the new policy, there can only be two visitors per patient at any given time and visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.. Certain units, such as intensive care and pediatrics, may have more time restrictions.
Maternity patients are only allowed visits from their spouse or significant other, and grandparents. Exceptions are considered on a case-by-case basis by the nursing supervisor on duty.
Any visitor showing signs of infectious disease, such as a bad cough, will be asked to leave and given a mask to wear on their way out of the hospital.
"We are taking reasonable measures to protect patients, which is our number one priority," Flynn said.
All UMMC healthcare workers have been getting on-site H1N1 vaccinations, which were mandatory. That requirement was lifted, except for those with direct patient contact, which are innoculated first.
The H1N1 virus has been declared a national pandemic. As with other flu viruses, a person can be infected and contagious for 24 hours before showing any symptoms, which can hamper control efforts.
This strain, first identified in spring (not typically the flu season) is considered unusual because children are among the hardest hit.
Flynn said the hospital has seen an increase in the number of young flu sufferers. Some local peditricians are reportedly "swamped" with flu cases and some schools are grappling with absenteeism due to the flu or fear of catching it.
"Most cases are dealt with at home," Flynn said. "People treat it just like they would any flu. But because so much media attention is being paid to (H1N1), sometimes they tend to think the sky is falling. That's not necessarily true."
But do wash your hands frequently.