NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — A new inpatient visitor policy asks visitors at any Southcoast Health facility to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or provide a negative test.
The test, according to the hospital, must be a PCR test taken within 24 hours of the visit, and the result must be provided by a lab. This excludes rapid antigen and at-home tests, according to Dr. Dan Hackner, chief clinical officer at Southcoast Health.
“We have no way of assessing an at-home test. We don’t have laboratory personnel in front of our hospitals,” Hackner explained.
“We did discuss the options there and ended up relying on the most validated and most widely available tests currently now,” he added.
The hospital group noted the updated policy is “for the protection and wellbeing of Southcoast Health’s patients, employees, and providers.”
Hackner said that while stricter, the policy was meant as a middle ground, rather than dramatically restricting visitation amid rising COVID-19 cases.
“We think there’s a role for visitors and family in the healing process and did not want to exclude individuals who are able to either be tested or vaccinated,” Hackner said. “It’s a patient safety and staff safety step, but also a step that will allow us to continually permit visits by family and close ones.”
The policy also puts limits on how many visitors can see a patient at a time, as well as age restrictions.
For example, an inpatient visitor may have one visitor at a time, with a maximum of three visitors per patient each day. If a visitor is between the ages of 5 and 17, the hospital group says two visitors may enter “to ensure the minor is accompanied by an adult.”
One visitor may accompany surgical patients or go to the same-day surgery center, physician offices, imaging, or laboratory patient service center, the policy notes.
There are stronger restrictions for the maternity unit, however. If birth partners are not vaccinated, they must be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive, according to the policy.
“Birth is an unpredictable event. Usually a healthy, uneventful occurrence, and under those circumstances, we’ll facilitate the testing,” Hackner said.
Additionally, visitors under the age of five, including siblings, are not allowed to visit new mothers, and no visitors under the age of 12 are allowed on the pediatric unit, regardless of vaccination status.
There are some exceptions, like end of life/patient comfort measures, parents of pediatric or infant patients, designated support person for patients with disabilities, or if clinical teams determine unique circumstances.
The policy also states no visitors experiencing cough, shortness of breath, a temperature above 100 degrees, or any other symptoms consistent with COVID-19 will be allowed into a facility.
The policy went into effect just two days after the new omicron variant was detected in Massachusetts for the first time.
However, much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it can thwart vaccines, or if it causes more or less severe disease.
Hackner said the omicron variant is a concern, but the rise in cases over the past few weeks was the reason for the shift in policy.
“We’re responding to the facts that we have, but we’re going to wait on the CDC and other health experts for guidance on omicron,” he said. “We don’t want to overreact. We want to assure access by patients, family and visitors. But we also need to take steps to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
The situation across the Commonwealth and the country is “very critical” at this time, according to Hackner.
“We are seeing loads, in the community, of virus that are consistent with what we saw nine months ago, and even higher than the start of the pandemic,” Hackner added.
He said emergency departments have been most impacted, and urges patients to seek care the right level, which may mean talking to a primary care doctor or specialist before going straight to the emergency department.
Hackner also urged people to get vaccinated and get tested if displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
Southcoast Health’s new visitor policy is one of the stricter hospital policies in the area. Prior to Monday, the hospital group’s policy involved masking at all times and one visitor at a time.
As of Monday, Lifespan’s and Care New England’s visitor policies indicated visitors, while subject to screening and mask-wearing, do not have tp show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test taken within a certain time frame.
Southcoast Health has facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.