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Why Spectrum Health now allows up to 2 visitors a day for COVID-positive patients

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Dr. David Vandenberg checks on the comfort of John Collins, 84, of Milan as Collins recovers from Covid related symptoms at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti Tuesday April 20, 2021.

Kristen Jordan Shamus

Detroit Free Press

In a reversal of long-standing pandemic restrictions, Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health announced Wednesday that COVID-19 patients getting treatment at its 14 hospitals now will be able to have two visitors per day — even if those patients are infectious.

“We’ve really been looking forward to the day when we can make sure that we can get loved ones (in to visit) some of these very long-term, very sick patients,” said Chad Tuttle, senior vice president of hospital operations for the health system. 

“We know that having their loved ones present is very important to the overall care and recovery of those patients. So we don’t have restrictions on staying 6 feet away and touching them, but we will be very restrictive in ensuring appropriate utilization of PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, most patients with COVID-19 at the vast majority of hospitals around the state have been barred from having visitors. Some exceptions, however, have been made for children with the virus, women in labor and delivery, and patients at the end of life. 

Sparrow Hospital in Lansing is believed to be the first in Michigan to allow COVID-19 patients to have visitors. It launched a pilot program in December that permitted COVID-19 patients one in-person visitor for up to an hour per day.  

“We did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Sparrow President Alan Vierling told the Lansing State Journal at the time. “We’re trying to get rid of that isolation because it’s devastating.”

Visitors for COVID-19 patients at Sparrow’s mid- Michigan hospitals must be 18 or older and wear provided PPE.

 “We were probably one of the first hospitals in the country to do so,” said spokesman John Foren, who noted that the health system continued to allow visitors for coronavirus-positive patients even during the March and April surge. “We still maintain that policy and continue to review our overall visitor policy.” 

Tuttle said this was the right time for Spectrum to relax its visitor rules because the coronavirus case rate, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests have dropped to levels last seen a year ago, when the spread of the virus was at its lowest.

“We have continually evaluated this decision and really have been looking at when would we feel is the safest time to do it. We finally reached that decision,” Tuttle said.

As of Wednesday, Spectrum Health’s census showed 43 patients were hospitalized with positive coronavirus tests. Of them, 28 had been hospitalized for more than two weeks; 15 were still considered infectious. 

“We do believe that that is a very manageable number for us,” Tuttle said.

Other factors the western Michigan health system’s leaders considered before making the policy change were  the supply of PPE, such as masks, gloves and gowns, which is now “robust,” Tuttle said, along with rising vaccination rates. Nearly 61% of Michiganders have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

However, vaccination is not required of visitors: “We highly encourage vaccination, but we don’t require it,” Tuttle said. 

The policy applies to patients hospitalized for coronavirus treatment and to patients hospitalized for other reasons who test positive for the virus. The two visitors must be selected by the patient or next of kin, and it must be the same two people for the duration of the patient’s hospital stay.

Visiting hours are 6 a.m.-9 p.m., and visitors will be screened for signs of the virus, and will be provided with gowns, gloves, eye protection and a mask. They will be taught how to properly put on and take off the PPE. 

The risk to visitors, he said, is low as long as the PPE is worn properly and taken off correctly. 

“We know the PPE works,” he said. Small children who can’t wear PPE the right way won’t be allowed to visit. 

“One thing that we were very mindful of is the risk and the burden to our staff,” Tuttle said. “Prior to us having very high vaccination rates amongst our staff, prior to us having incredibly robust supplies of PPE, staff safety was top of mind for us as well as the safety of visitors.

“We also recognize that not having visitors … in our facilities has also been an increased burden and created moral distress with our own staff. They have in many ways tried to step in to fill that gap. But it is just not possible to provide the level of emotional support that can be provided by your own loved ones.

“Our staff have done an amazing job of trying to fill that gap, but we think allowing visitors in will actually reduce some of that burden on staff, and actually make it easier for them to focus on their clinical responsibilities.”

Visitors must show that they can properly wear the PPE, and will not be allowed to be in the room during procedures that might aerosolize the virus. 

The Free Press asked six other Michigan health systems Wednesday whether they also are planning to loosen visitor restrictions for COVID-19 patients. 

Of them, spokespeople for St. Joseph Mercy Health, Henry Ford Health System and Michigan Medicine said no changes to the visitor policies have been announced at their health systems.

Beaumont Health, the Detroit Medical Center and Ascension Michigan did not immediately respond. 

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