Starting Monday, Mary Washington Healthcare is letting visitors back into its buildings on a limited basis with the hopes that patients with dire medical needs will be more willing to seek care if they have a loved one by their side.

“When you’re sick, you’re scared, you don’t know what’s going on, and it’s very hard to be isolated from your loved ones,” Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical officer with MWHC, said Thursday during a virtual town hall meeting. “Patients are afraid to be here alone.”

That’s why the health care system is modifying its previous policy, put in place in March in response to COVID-19. That policy kept all visitors out of the building, except parents or guardians of hospitalized children or partners of women going through labor and birth.

Starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday, one visitor will be allowed with each patient in the emergency rooms at Mary Washington Hospital, Stafford Hospital and the stand-alone emergency department at Lee’s Hill. In addition, between noon and 8 p.m. daily, one visitor will be allowed to see patients who have been admitted to Mary Washington and Stafford hospitals, except for patients in the intensive care unit or the COVID-19 ward.

Those having outpatient procedures will not be allowed to have visitors because there’s no way to practice safe social distancing in a small waiting room, MWHC officials said.

Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center also has changed its policy and is allowing one visitor to accompany a surgical patient into the hospital. However, Spotsylvania is not allowing visitors into its emergency room unless they’re with a child who’s a patient.

“Many of these individuals, across the board, tend to wait in their vehicle for their family member,” said Jael Cooper, marketing director at Spotsylvania Regional.

At all local hospitals, visitors will have their temperatures taken at the door and be asked questions about their general health and if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. They’ll also be asked to wear a mask for their entire visit.

At Mary Washington Healthcare facilities, the new policy doesn’t mean patients can have a different visitor every hour. Officials ask that patients have the same visitor throughout their stay, and that it be the person listed as the patient’s point of contact. There are some exceptions: parents of pediatric patients can take turns visiting their children, one a time, and patients who are “end-of-life” usually can have two visitors, Henry said.

The change in policy should bring more comfort, both to patients and their loved ones worried about them, said Eileen Dohmann, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at MWHC.

“We’re excited about the change,” she said. “We’ve actually missed having visitors in the building.”

They’ve also seen fewer patients as people have been afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being exposed to the novel coronavirus. Last month, Dr. Eric Tosh, an emergency medicine physician, said Mary Washington Hospital alone was seeing 60 to 80 fewer patients per day in the emergency department compared to normal daily averages.

Newman reported on Thursday that similar trends had continued. Emergency room staff recently saw back-to-back cases of people with a ruptured appendix or who had been suffering chest pains for days.

“Over and over, we are seeing patients concerned about coming to the hospital and they’re having negative outcomes” because they’ve delayed treatment, he said.

MWHC officials, along with Spotsylvania Regional’s CEO David McKnight, have stressed the many precautions in place to protect visitors, patients and staff. None of the hospitals have been overrun with COVID-19 patients; Mary Washington Hospital has the bulk of ICU beds available and officials said Thursday the facility never reached capacity during 10 weeks of treating COVID-19 patients.

“Not even close,” Dohmann said.

In fact, most days, overall patient volume has been cut in half because of fewer people in the emergency room, she said.

In addition, COVID-19 patients have been limited to specific areas of the hospitals, where air flow is contained to that unit. Cleaning and disinfecting regimens, which already were prevalent in hospitals, were ramped up during the pandemic, McKnight said.

“I know the precautions we’re taking, I feel safe coming into the hospital every day,” he said. “I honestly feel safer than going to the grocery store.”

Newman also wanted the community to know the health care system has gone four weeks without any hospital staff members contracting the virus.

“The few we’ve had who tested positive got it outside the hospital and I think that’s important to know,” he said.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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