Flu outbreaks causing visiting restrictions in hospitals, nursing facilities

By Caroline Klapper | Dec 26, 2012

It seems the current flu strain making the rounds in the region isn’t done with Haywood County just yet, and local hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are taking extra precautions to try to protect patients.

“We are currently experiencing our first rise in flu activity this influenza season,” said Mission Health System Public Relations Manager Jerri Jameson. “The best way to control the spread of flu is to limit contact with people who could spread it. As the activity level has increased, we have implemented visitor restrictions.”

At Mission, only immediate family or closest contacts over the age 12 are allowed to visit. Children under 12 and anyone who doesn’t feel well are asked to call patients instead of visiting in person.

“This is based on a recommendation from Mission Health’s Infectious Disease Physicians as a way to be consistent in implementing restrictions based on influenza activity in the community as well as hospitals,” Jameson said.

The same restrictions were implemented during the 2011-2012 flu season.

The reason for such precautions, Jameson explained, is that patients in hospitals are more susceptible to getting the flu since their immune systems are often not working as well as a healthy person’s.

The precautions currently being taken at MedWest-Haywood are similar.

Visitors are limited to people age 12 or older who do not have symptoms of respiratory illness, such as fever, cough, sore throat, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, headache, nausea or vomiting.

“Hospital officials are asking that the public call patients in the hospital instead of visiting,” said Lucretia Stargell, a spokesperson for MedWest-Haywood.

The idea is to limit patients’ potential exposure to the flu virus, especially in cases where the patient is already sick or injured.

In addition, the 4East Mother/Baby Unit is off limits to everyone except immediate family members, including parents, significant others and grandparents.

And the restrictions are even being applied to the Health and Fitness Center.

“The MedWest Health and Fitness Center is asking that members avoid coming to work out if they are ill and wait until they are symptom free,” Stargell added.

Despite a requirement that the staff at Maggie Valley Nursing and Rehab Center get an annual flu vaccine, some have still come down with the flu, which indicates this particular strain isn’t covered by the flu shot.

So far, the center has had 13 confirmed cases with five patients having to be hospitalized.

Erica Hartrick, a social services worker at the facility, said that because the elderly already have weakened immune systems, the flu can be deadly for them, and sadly, the center has already lost one patient to complications from the flu.

Starting last week, visitors had to wear masks, gloves and gowns, but since Wednesday, the center has gone into quarantine, with no visitors allowed in an effort to prevent the illness from spreading further.

Other precautions include keeping the doors between wings shut at all times, staff wearing masks, gloves and gowns, and residents taking meals in their rooms instead of in the dining hall.

While the safety measures are in place to protect patients from getting sick, Hartrick said it is a hard time to ban visitors.

“Especially right here at Christmas, it’s awful to have to turn away family members,” she said.

However, the situation is not as serious at Smoky Mountain Healthcare in Waynesville.

Although there have been a few staff members who have come down with the flu, nurse Sharon Browning said the facility has had no cases among the patients so far.

“Thank God, knock on wood, we have not had an outbreak. We’re one of the few,” she said, explaining that she’s heard many of the hospitals in the area are dealing with a lot of flu cases. “We’re very fortunate. We’ve not had an outbreak here, and we want to keep it that way.”

While visitors are still allowed, those who know they have the flu are asked not to come, and anyone with cold-like symptoms must wear a mask during their visit and wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before and after their visit.

“We strongly urge people that know they have (the flu) to not come,” Browning said, adding they hope to prevent the virus from spreading to the patients.

While there is no way to fully predict what type of flu strain might pop up during the flu season, everyone can take precautions to avoid getting sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the following recommendations:

• Get vaccinated — Even though the vaccine is not 100 percent protection against all flu strains, it is still one of the best ways to prevent getting the seasonal flu.

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

• Avoid close contact with sick people.

• If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home until the illness has passed.