Providence St. Mary Medical Center to screen visitors for illnesses

Visitors to St. Mary will be screened each day before being allowed to visit a patient during this year's flu season.


WALLA WALLA — You’re so excited. Your sister just delivered her first baby and you can’t wait to pack up the kids to go visit your brand-new nephew.

Hang on, there are a few things health providers want you to know before you grab the car keys.

In Walla Walla, for example, if the baby was born at Providence St. Mary Medical Center, you’ll be required to check in at a nurse’s station to be screened for any illnesses you could pass on to your sister or other patients.

Every visitor to St. Mary will be screened each day they come in before being allowed to visit a patient during this year’s flu season.

Inconvenient, to be sure, but an important precaution to protect patients from contracting flu and other illnesses — "very serious" when transmitted to people already ill, hospital officials said.

The new policy started a week ago, said Penny Ilg, a member of the St. Mary team working on pandemic preparedness. Before going live, several factors had to be decided, such as what questions to ask visitors and where to place signage, she said.

It’s still a work in progress. There is the occasional shift overlap, resulting in visitors being asked screening questions — starting with "Have you had a fever of 100 degrees or higher in the last 24 hours?" — twice or more during one visit, Ilg said. "We are working on that. Visitors come and go and staff changes."

One solution might be passing out color-coded stickers for each day, she said. "That, too, will help with feelings of frustration."

In general, however, visitors have been cooperative and understanding, said Susan Leathers, trauma and emergency preparedness program manager for St. Mary. "I think there is the expectation that people want to protect themselves and their family."

Most people understand the logic behind the policy. "There’s an awareness in the community and I think people are like ‘Oh, OK, they are taking this seriously,’" Ilg said.

Staff at Walla Walla General Hospital is equally serious about protecting patients. Hygiene stations are in place, and employees have been empowered to ask people coughing or sneezing to wear a mask, said spokeswoman Kristi Spurgeon.

In particular, visitors appearing to be ill are strongly encouraged to avoid the obstetrics floor, she said. "If they insist, we do ask them to wear a mask."

As the flu season progresses, policies will be monitored and other measures may be put into place, Spurgeon added.

At St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, decisions about pandemic and seasonal flu are evaluated on a regular basis, noted spokesman Larry Blanc.

This week, at least, visitor policy is unchanged, but several prevention aids have been implemented. Masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizer are available as needed and requested, he said.

Other ideas are floating around, as well, Blanc added. "Like taking magazines out of the waiting room or removing toys from children’s areas or maybe washing them every day. We’re being careful about what is in the pediatric clinic."

Some hospitals in the Northwest and elsewhere are barring all children from visiting, Leathers said, adding that population is being seriously impacted by H1N1; keeping kids out of a medical facility is likely best for them and for vulnerable patients.

At St. Mary, a screening indicating "someone with acute illness" would be reason to ask that visitor to not stay, she said. "We definitely feel families are an important part of a patient’s recovery, but we want to focus on what’s in the best interest if this new mother and her baby or that person in critical care."

While nothing replaces a face-to-face visitor, people today do stay in touch by a number of electronic means. Most patients can have most of those devices while at St. Mary, Leathers pointed out. "And there’s still lots of people who write notes and send cards. It’s a very personal touch."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwubcom or 526-8322.


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