Young children are no longer welcome visitors in some areas of Minnesota hospitals as officials look to prevent their most vulnerable patients from getting the H1N1 flu virus.
Visiting policies have become stricter in some hospital neonatal intensive care units, maternity wards or where children are being treated, because children and pregnant women are at high risk of contracting the virus and developing complications from it.
Officials at Allina Hospitals & Clinics have implemented a visiting policy for children's and maternity wards at ten hospitals in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, keeping all children under age 5 out. Siblings of an infant or child at the hospital can visit if they are at least 5 years old, but other visitors have to be at least 16 years old.
Officials are also limiting the number of visitors allowed in to three people at a time, and the visitors must go through a screening process where a staff person asks them questions about flu-like symptoms.
"Pregnant women, infants and young children are at a greater risk of getting H1N1, and we are also concerned with the health of our staff," said Tim Burk, an Allina spokesman, of the policy, which has been in effect since Friday.
Other hospitals have also revised visiting policies to varying degrees. Some haven't made changes but are looking closely at their visiting policies in light of H1N1, said Jan Hennings, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Hospital Association.
"For pregnant women and newborns, I think there's a heightened awareness of how H1N1 can affect them," said Hennings, adding that the Minnesota Department of Health at this point hasn't offered any specific guidance on hospital visiting policies.
According to the most recent health department numbers, more children in Minnesota were hospitalized with H1N1 than all other age groups combined.
At Fairview Health Services, officials have decided to restrict visiting only in the neonatal intensive care units at Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville and at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.
Children under 18 are not allowed in either unit -- not even siblings -- and only two adults can visit at a time.
"Tiny babies would be especially vulnerable because of their respiratory development," said Jennifer Amundson, a spokeswoman for Fairview Health Services.
The restrictions at Ridges came because of the high rates of H1N1 in the schools in the area, Amundson said.
In general, all Fairview hospitals ask visitors with symptoms to stay away, but officials know that some people will feel so strongly about a hospitalized family member that they might come anyway. For that reason, signs telling people to cover up if they're sick, hand sanitizer and masks are a common sight at all the hospitals, Amundson said.
Hennings said several factors, including family tradition and culture, might come into play as a hospital decides whether to make visiting policies more restrictive. For example, she said, some hospitals and patients put a greater emphasis on having the whole family be part of the healing process.
Even if some hospitals leave visiting policies in place, all of them are trying to protect their patients from sick visitors, Hennings said. "If they are experiencing any symptoms at all, please stay away from the hospital," she said.