Novant Health, a large healthcare system with 15 medical centers and hundreds of clinics across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, has announced strict temporary visitor restrictions at all of their hospitals starting December 20th, 2023. These new rules limit visitors to only essential caregivers for adult patients, and no visitors under 18 will be allowed.
The restrictions come as Novant Health, along with hospital systems nationwide, experiences an early and aggressive surge of respiratory illnesses like RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), flu, and COVID-19. Pediatric hospital beds in particular are nearing capacity, prompting the age-based visitor limitations. The restrictions will be re-evaluated on a weekly basis and eased once illnesses decline to more manageable levels.
What the Restrictions Entail
Novant Health’s new visitor policy details that only two visitors per patient will be allowed, and they must be over the age of 18. For pediatric patients, only parents or guardians will be permitted.
Exceptions may be made for end-of-life patients and women giving birth. Those individuals can have two designated visitors who must remain the same throughout the hospital stay.
All visitors will be screened for respiratory symptoms and required to wear a medical-grade face mask at all times. Visitors who don’t pass the symptom screening or follow masking rules may not be allowed to enter the facilities.
Why the Restrictions Were Enacted
Hospital leaders cited recent rapid increases in flu, RSV, and COVID-19 cases in their communities as the reason for restricting visitors.
Dr. Sid Fletcher, Novant Health’s president of medical affairs, said more than 800 pediatric patients per day are being seen across their hospitals for severe respiratory infections. Occupancy rates for pediatric beds have been 95-100% in recent weeks, limiting hospitals’ ability to absorb more young patients.
Fletcher explained the visitor restrictions aim to reduce further viral transmission and reserve hospital capacity for the sickest patients.
How Long Could the Rules Last?
Novant has not given an end date for the visitor restrictions, saying only that they will be re-evaluated weekly as illnesses trend up or down.
Given the early timing and aggressive nature of this year’s respiratory virus surge, there are indications the rules could remain in place for an extended period.
|Respiratory Virus Cases
|Lower at this time
|earlier peak by 3 months
|Peaked in January
|Lower last December
With flu and RSV both spiking before the typical January/February peak, and COVID rising simultaneously, hospitals are likely to remain overloaded for weeks or months to come.
How Other Hospital Systems Are Responding
The combination of viruses overwhelming pediatric facilities is a national issue, not just isolated to Novant Health hospitals.
Children’s Hospital of The Kings Daughters (CHKD) in Norfolk, VA announced nearly identical visitor rules changes a week before Novant Health. Atrium Health, the largest healthcare system in the Carolinas, and the UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill also have age-based visitor restrictions in place.
What Could Happen Next
If respiratory viruses continue increasing in the coming weeks rather than declining after the holidays, further visitor limitations could be enacted. Medical centers may need to convert more beds to isolate contagious patients or create additional pediatric capacity if children’s hospitals remain full.
Novant Health’s restrictions highlight the precarious situation hospitals face combating simultaneous surges of different viruses. Preventing viral transmission within hospitals is crucial to ensuring beds and resources for future patients who develop severe illness. The community can help by staying up to date on vaccinations, wearing masks in public indoor settings, and keeping sick children home from school.
Novant Health hospitals are currently only allowing adult visitors and guardians of pediatric patients in order to preserve capacity for seriously ill children. These strict rules reflect the pressing threat hospitals are experiencing from an unusually timed and widespread respiratory virus season. The restrictions will help to curb infections, but may need to continue for weeks or months until a declining number of cases eases the burden on healthcare facilities.
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