Columbia hospitals taking steps to stop spread of H1N1 virus

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This story has been corrected to show that employees at University Hospital are not required — but are encouraged — to receive the seasonal flu or H1N1 vaccines.

COLUMBIA — Although many hospitals on the national level are trying to keep out visitors with flu symptoms to control the spread of the H1N1 virus, Columbia hospitals are taking more measured steps.

Hospitals around the country are turning away visiting children and tightening restrictions on adults, too, in hopes of limiting the spread of swine flu in the hallways — though there's little science that this works.

Utah and Colorado are recommending visitor limits for hospitals statewide. But mostly, it's a hospital-by-hospital decision, meaning clinics in the same town can have different rules.

That's the case in Columbia, and any visitor restrictions will be up to the individual hospital, said Kit Wagar of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Boone Hospital Center isn't changing any visitation policies, and University Hospital is now taking the temperature of all visitors to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. But for now, no big changes in visitation policies are being considered.

"It's an ongoing battle that we fight with infection like all hospitals, and it's no different now with this flu," said Bryant Gladney, manager of ambulance services at Boone Hospital Center. "At this point, in our community, we don't see a need for any more restrictions with this influenza bug."

Nationally, there's a huge variation in what hospitals are doing to prevent the spread of the flu. Stanford University Hospital barred anyone under 16 from visiting, while the Central Vermont Hospital turned away the under-12 crowd. Other hospitals have made the cut-off age for visits 14 or 18. The Indiana Heart Hospital has had visitors answer questions and wear a green sticker showing they were cleared to enter, and the Inova Health System hospital chain in Washington, D.C., is limiting visitors for pregnant women.

Still, the hospitals are monitoring the situation and stressing education for visitors who do come into the hospital. They've posted signs warning those with symptoms to stay out and have personnel keeping a watch on visitors showing signs of the flu.

"You wouldn't want to bring that into that environment and make it difficult for all the other people," MU Health Care spokesman Jeffrey Hoelscher said. 

Although visitors are one risk, health care workers are another concern. Gladney said employees Boone Hospital Center are being encouraged to wear masks and get the H1N1 vaccine. They are already required to get the seasonal flu vaccine. Hoelscher said employees at University Hospital are encouraged to receive the vaccine but no requirement exists.

Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the American Hospital Association have set guidelines on the issue. Local hospitals are taking precautions as they go instead of setting restrictions. In the case of H1N1, officials are hoping the public takes responsibility and stays away from the hospital if they're sick.

"We would highly encourage anyone who has H1N1 to stay home. Period," Hoelscher said. "That's the best policy you can adhere to."

 — The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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