Citing a sudden surge of COVID-19 cases, University of Virginia Health officials are implementing a ban on visitors at the UVa Medical Center and transitional care hospital that began Thursday at 9 p.m.
Health officials will also restrict visitors to the emergency department, outpatient clinics and outpatient procedure areas beginning at 7 a.m. on Jan. 3 and are also closing all public spaces to the public, including the hospital lobby, cafeteria and waiting rooms.
Sentara-owned Martha Jefferson Hospital on Thursday announced on its Facebook page that it would also restrict visitors in its emergency room.
“The visitation policy changes are part of UVa Health’s efforts to protect the health of our patients and team members,” said spokesman Josh Barney in a statement released Thursday morning. “UVa Health also continues to encourage all community members to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots.”
According to its social media post, Sentara is banning emergency room visitors effective Thursday.
There are, of course, exceptions. Patients with altered mental status, developmental delays or behavioral health concerns may have one visitor and those under the age of 18 may have either a parent or a guardian with them.
Those critically ill or critically injured may also have one visitor.
Sentara visitation policies for the rest of the hospital have not changed.
Some exceptions may also be made to UVa visitor exclusion policy. For pediatric patients and patients with disabilities, one adult designated visitor may be with the patient 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout an inpatient admission, emergency department visit or outpatient visit or procedure.
Patients facing the end of their lives may have two designated adult visitors with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Limited exceptions for specific patients can be made if the visitor is not COVID-19 positive and does not have symptoms of COVID-19 or other contagious illness,” Barney explained. “All visitors must be screened before entering the hospital, must always wear a mask and must remain with the patient at all times.”
The restrictions, which have been in place during similar surges in the pandemic, now approaching two years old, are designed to help protect medical staff at the hospital as well as patients and other visitors.
Visitation allowances at UVa medical facilities have varied throughout the pandemic, ranging from no visitors except in end-of-life situations and maternity cases in March 2020 when the pandemic first hit Virginia and again in January when a post-holiday surge struck the region.
When the pandemic appeared to be retreating in June and July, the hospital allowed two visitors at bedsides, and others could wait in lounges, lobbies and other public spaces.
An August surge created by the delta variant convinced UVa Health officials to limit patients to two designated patients, with only one at a time allowed at their bedside.
The tighter restrictions come as the number of COVID-19 cases is reaching record levels across the region, the state and on the UVa Grounds.
According to the UVa COVID tracker website, a combined 123 students, staff and faculty tested positive for COVID-19 in the first two days of this week.
The surge is on the heels of the Christmas holiday: On Dec. 23, 167 people were tested for COVID-19 at UVa with 18 reporting positive test results. On Tuesday, five days later, 281 people were tested with 61 people testing positive.
The seven-day average for UVa community members shows an 18.7% positive test rate. For students tested, the rate is 12.3% positive while staff and faculty tests show a seven-day average of 20.51% positive.
The rest of Central Virginia is also seeing a surge. The Blue Ridge Health District reported 371 new cases Wednesday, the highest single day total of any pandemic day so far. The district is averaging a record 160 new cases over a seven-day period compared the 74-case, seven-day average last year.
The recent surge makes December 2021 the second-worst month of the pandemic in terms of daily case counts. So far, 19 new deaths have been recorded, and 77 people have been hospitalized this month, which is one of the higher monthly totals.
Barney said UVa Health officials are imploring people yet to be vaccinated to so as soon as possible and to get vaccine booster shots as soon as they qualify.
“Booster shots have been shown to increase the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19 and the highly contagious omicron variant,” he said. “Data shows that a booster increases omicron infection protection from around 30% to between 70% and 75%. [It] makes symptoms much milder and dramatically reduces the risk of severe disease or hospitalization.”
Anyone with questions about the policy should call the hospital at (434) 924-0000 or go to online at uvahealth.com/services/covid19-visiting-restrictions.
Also on Thursday, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association and the Virginia Department of Health in a joint statement urged Virginians with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 and “other seasonal illnesses,” including influenza, to avoid hospital emergency rooms.
Health and hospital officials said the state is in its fifth coronavirus surge since the pandemic in 2020. The peak may not arrive until several weeks New Year’s Day, they predicted. The state has reported 51,564 new infections since Christmas Eve.
“In the current climate, Virginia public health officials and hospitals leaders are urging individuals with asymptomatic or mild coronavirus cases, or other non-serious illnesses, to avoid unnecessary trips to already burdened hospital emergency departments,” they said in the statement.
“People with severe COVID-19 symptoms such as significant difficulty breathing, intense chest pain, severe weakness, or an elevated temperature that persists for days unabated are among those who should consider seeking emergency medical care for their condition,” they wrote.
The officials cited the fast-spreading omicron variant and rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations as reasons for only the seriously ill to go to the hospital.
“Most individuals who contract coronavirus do not need to visit the hospital emergency department and can effectively recover from their illness at home, or by seeking primary care treatment [or] speaking with their primary care provider,” they wrote.