H1N1 Leads N.C. Hospitals To Ban Young Visitors

The H1N1 virus is a particular problem in the South, and some hospitals have set up tents to keep patients from spreading the virus. In Charlotte, N.C., the region's two largest hospital chains began prohibiting visitors younger than 18 on Thursday.

Until word really gets out about the new visitor policy, uncomfortable scenes are going to be pretty common in Charlotte hospitals.

Martha Whitecotton is an administrator at Charlotte's largest children's hospital, run by Carolinas HealthCare System. She talked about a family that had to temporarily separate in the hospital because of the new rule banning young visitors.

"We have a grandmother that is with a sibling, and the mother is upstairs with the patient," Whitecotton said. "And when they came this morning, they didn't know about the restriction, but they were gracious about it."

Whitecotton said the grandmother wasn't exactly thrilled to be stuck in the lobby, but her 5-year-old grandson got some surgical gloves to play with, so he didn't seem too put-out.

Whitecotton knows the visitor restrictions will be a bitter pill for many, but she sees a benefit.

"It's definitely worth it, because when you look at the children across the nation who have died because of the flu, they are also children with other chronic illnesses," she said. "You know, for every child I discharge alive, I know it worked."

The same is true for pregnant women, elderly patients and people with weak immune systems. The swine flu is prevalent among children — hence the visitation ban.

A Tough Rule To Enforce

People like Kris Wright now have a hard job of turning families away. She's director of patient services for Presbyterian Hospitals.

"We don't want to stronghold anybody," Wright said. "We're not going to chase them down — 'No, you can't!' —we're not going to do that. I don't want to deny Grandma, who may be terminally ill, from seeing her granddaughter, or granddaughter from seeing her grandma."

Other exceptions might include an emergency where a parent doesn't have time to get a babysitter, or a teenage mother is visiting her own child.

But making too many exceptions will defeat the purpose. So there will be situations where long-term patients may have to go months without seeing their kids or siblings.

Dr. Stephen Wallenhaupt says that's unfortunate. But as chief medical officer of Presbyterian Hospital, he also sees new flu cases showing up in his emergency room everyday.

"We'd like to be sure we are more cautious than necessary," Wallenhaupt said. "And then reflecting on that, we'd like to say everyone did a good job of helping address this threat."

Wallenhaupt said the policy will stay in place until swine flu is no longer a significant threat. In the meantime, he prescribes a heavy dose of telephone and e-mail contact to cut down on visitors who might bring the flu.

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