Hospitals see big jump in H1N1 cases, restrict visitors

Minnesota hospitals have been treating more patients with severe flu symptoms.

There were 275 patients hospitalized with influenza-like illness in the last week, according to the Minnesota Health Department. That's the biggest jump in hospitalizations since the department began tracking the H1N1 flu outbreak in April.

Regions Hospital in St. Paul admitted 36 patients with flu-like illness last week. Dede Ouren, the hospital's manager of infection prevention and control, says so far, the hospital is able to keep up with the surge.

"We are at the high end of busy with isolation," said Ouren. "For nurses, it takes extra time to put on your protective gear before you go in the room, and with that many patients in isolation it takes a little more time."

Ouren says the current patient surge at Region's is a fivefold increase over the peak caseload during a typical seasonal flu outbreak.

In response to the flu oubreak, several hospitals in the Twin Cities area are tightening their visitor policies even more to protect their patients and staffs from getting infected.

Allina Hospitals & Clinics, HealthEast Care System, Fairview Health Services, Hennepin County Medical Center and others said Friday that children under 5 won't be able to visit any hospital, even if they're visiting a parent or sibling.

Children ages 5-15 will only be able to visit a hospital if a member of their immediate family is staying there, and if they are being supervised by an adult.

Most hospitals in the Twin Cities area will implement the policies, which were announced Friday during a joint news conference.

The expanded visiting rules come a couple weeks after Allina and other health systems implemented restrictions for birth centers and pediatric units that barred children under 5. Many hospitals will also continue to screen visitors for flu symptoms when they visit birth centers and pediatric units.

Hospital officials said there hasn't yet been a broad distribution of H1N1 vaccine, so the hospitals' primary defense is prevention.

"What we're trying to do is slow down the exposure," said Dr. Gretchen Phillips of Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, Minn.

In addition to placing restrictions on young visitors, many of the hospitals will also set the maximum number of visitors per patient at three or four, and limit visiting hours.

Allina officials said visitor policies might vary slightly among hospitals, and that visitors should check a particular hospital's Web site for up-to-date information. Officials also said compassionate exceptions to the rules could be made in certain cases.

"We understand that these policies may inconvenience some people," said Dr. Steven Bergeson, medical director of quality for Allina. "We truly believe this action is needed, and is in the best interest of our patients and staffs."

The Minnesota Department of Health considers H1N1 flu widespread in Minnesota. But access to vaccine for the virus has been limited so far to health care workers and other priority groups.

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