Based on a number of factors, including concerns that the fall and winter could bring a “double whammy” of flu and COVID-19, Rutland Regional Medical Center is tightening its restrictions on visitors coming to the hospital to visit friends and family.
Claudio Fort, RRMC president and CEO, said the hospital was going back to policies that were in place in the spring after Vermont initially declared a state of emergency.
As of Nov. 2, the hospital administration will limit visitation to one “essential support person” per patient, whether the patient is coming to the hospital for a test or procedure, staying in the hospital to recover or getting treatment in the emergency department. There will be some exceptions. For instance, parents or legal guardians will be included as an emergency support person, or ESP, for pediatric patients and two ESPs will be allowed for a patient receiving end-of-life care.
Fort said there will be some limited flexibility specific to a patient’s situation. Provisions will be made for visits by clergy, state agencies and others who provide assistance to patients such a disability rights advocates.
“We want to be as supportive of our patients as possible but we are also very nervous about what we are seeing going on throughout the country and everywhere (in the states that are) around Vermont. COVID transmission is increasing significantly, and we want to do everything we can to protect our patients and our staff here,” he said.
The “ultimate message” is about getting through the pandemic, Fort said.
“It’s been an unbelievable year. Vermonters have hung together. We’re been an example for the country. Unfortunately, we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve got to get through this fall and winter season,” he said.
Thomas Rounds, director of the Emergency Department at Rutland Regional, said staff at Regional Ambulance and other EMS personnel that brought patients to the hospital have been informed of the change to the policy so they can talk with family and friends at a crash scene or at the home of a patient suffering a medical crisis about who will and won’t be allowed to visit.
New signs will be outside the Emergency Department. Rounds said there will also be staff members or a social worker, who might be able to provide information about a patient’s condition to people waiting in the parking lot so the family knows what’s happening but can’t spread the virus or catch it themselves by entering the hospital.
The policy would be the same for psychiatric patients getting services at the Emergency Department, Rounds said.
Fort said leaders at the Rutland hospital started with the recommendation from the Vermont Agency of Human Services but made it more stringent.
However, Fort pointed out the policy change was not a reaction to any perceived problem at the RRMC. There is not a COVID transmission problem at the hospital or in Rutland County, but the policy is being changed out of an “abundance of caution.”
Fort said some of the concerns leading to the change included the impending ski and holiday seasons which could bring visitors from other states where COVID is spreading more rapidly than it has in Vermont and family members who want to see each other for year-end holidays after not seeing each other for an extended period.
“A lot of times when something happens on the mountain, the whole family shows up in the emergency department,” he said.
Another big concern is what Fort called a potential “double whammy” of flu and COVID spreading at the same time.
Gerianne Smart, manager for marketing and public relations, said the change in policy will be put out to the community through social media, advertising in print and other media such as local radio and television. Signs will be put up at the hospital campus and staff at various hospital-related clinics are being given information about the changes and guidelines to help explain the new policy to patients and family members.
People who want to know more will be able to find information on the RRMC Facebook page.
“This is a similar playbook to what we had when COVID came around, and we had to restrict visitation early on. But our communication strategy is much more robust and strong on this next round,” she said.
Rounds said he hoped patients and their families would understand the care providers “come from a place of kindness and empathy.”
“We know if it was our own family, we would have the same concern, and we would also have the same limitations. It applies to all of us staff, as well as you, the community,” he said.
Hospital staff will try to accommodate the needs of patients and their loved ones, according to Fort.
“But if mom’s in the hospital and doing OK and the whole extended family wants to visit, that’s not going to be permitted,”
Fort added Rutland Regional would someday go back to its usual visitation procedures.
“We encourage visitation and we will go back to that as soon as we’re past the threat of widespread transmission of COVID,” he said.