Flu crisis: Mountain States, Wellmont impose unprecedented visitation restrictions

Johnson City Press • Updated Jan 12, 2018 at 9:06 PM

With a 371 percent increase in flu cases confirmed this season, the region’s two hospital systems announced Friday even stricter visitation guidelines than those implemented in December.

Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System said in a news release that their hospitals recorded more than 1,650 positive flu cases since the start of flu season Oct. 1, compared to about 350 during the same time period last year. That’s in keeping with national trends.

To protect patients, staff members and physicians from potential exposure, the system has taken unprecedented precautions. On Dec. 21, the two systems asked anyone younger than 12 and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms to refrain from visiting patients. Now, hospitals are asking the following individuals to refrain from visiting patients:

• Anyone who has flu-like symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, fever, chills, runny nose, body aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea;

• Anyone younger than 18; and

• Any groups of more than two adults per patient.

“This is a level of restriction we have not done before, but it’s important to understand the risks this flu season are higher than normal,” Jamie Swift, director of infection prevention at Mountain States, said in the news release. “These restrictions match what is being done in many other parts of the country, as hospitals are seeing not only higher volumes of flu cases, but also more severe illness.

“The predominant flu strain circulating throughout our area and the rest of the country is H3N2, which is the most severe strain of flu. It by far causes the most hospitalizations, critical illness and deaths.”

This year’s flu shot is not a perfect match for the strain of H3N2 circulating, so people may become sick when they are exposed the virus, even if they received a flu shot. As a result, flu volumes have been extremely high.

“What makes this particularly concerning is that as high as our numbers are locally, they’re even higher in other parts of this country. Some hospitals in other states are now setting up triage tents outside their emergency rooms to handle the additional volume. This tells us that the possibility exists for our flu cases to surge even higher, so we want to do everything we can to prevent that,” Swift said.

Area hospitals have plans in place to accommodate additional volume if flu cases surge, but visitation restrictions and community education are being deployed in an attempt to prevent an increase in cases.

“When a loved one is in the hospital, we know family and friends want to stay connected and check on them. We encourage you to call the front desk of the hospital, and we will be glad to connect you to the patient’s room,” Dr. Gail Stanley, an infectious disease physician at Bristol Regional Medical Center, said in the news release. “It’s important to remember that people can spread the flu to others for a full day before they start showing symptoms. So, to keep our patients and our community safe, we’re trying to limit the number of visitors who come into the hospital.

Before the visitation restrictions, Mountain States and Wellmont hospitals were already employing a number of other precautions, including providing masks at each entrance and registration area and designating separate waiting areas for patients experiencing fever or respiratory symptoms.

“Community members can play an important role in the health and well-being of patients, team members and physicians by observing these enhanced measures,” Stanley said. “They can also take a number of proactive steps to lower the chances they and others will be infected with flu, such as washing hands frequently, covering their cough and not touching their eyes, nose and mouth.”

Despite the decrease in the flu shot’s effectiveness, the systems also encouraged unvaccinated people to take the precaution.

“We also want people to know it is not too late to receive a flu vaccination, which can decrease symptoms and reduce the risk of critical illness or death from this potent virus,” Stanley said.

A flu vaccination is recommended for everyone older than 6 months, especially pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a weakened immune system, according to the release.

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