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Hospitals trying to corral flu

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If you want to visit someone in the hospital or go meet a friend’s new baby, you might get turned away.

Southside hospitals are cracking down on what visitors they let in after 17 flu-related deaths were reported across the state last week.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms — including fever, body aches and a cough — and children and people who aren’t immediate relatives likely won’t be let in to visit.

This week, Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis and Community Hospital South began restricting visitors at the Marion County Health Department’s request.

Hospital officials say they’ve restricted visitors before, including during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, and they are limiting visitors this year as more and more people are visiting the emergency rooms daily with flu-like symptoms.

Since December, 161 patients have visited Franciscan St. Francis Health to be tested for the flu, and 159 patients at Community Hospital South have received the test since Jan. 1, which is about five times more than what is typical for this time of year. Many of the patients are complaining of respiratory problems, and Franciscan St. Francis Health has admitted more patients than usual who have the flu and other illnesses, spokesman Joe Stuteville said.

Local health officials say the increase in flu cases this winter season intensified about four weeks earlier than normal, and the virus common right now, influenza A virus H3N2, causes worse symptoms than other flu viruses.

Residents still can get a flu vaccine, which health officials say has been successful at preventing people from getting the virus this year.

Local health officials say they are unsure if the flu season has yet hit its peak, and Franciscan St. Francis Health and Community Hospital South will continue to restrict visitors until fewer people are catching the virus.

At both southside hospitals, employees have posted signs and are letting visitors know about the restrictions.

Face masks and hand sanitizer have been placed at all entrances for use as needed.

Volunteers also are set up at each entrance of Franciscan St. Francis Health to ask visitors if they have flu-like symptoms, such as respiratory problems and a fever, and if they are immediately related to the patient they’re visiting, Stuteville said.

If visitors do not meet the requirements, they will be asked to leave, Stuteville said.

Stuteville said the hospital will allow visitors who don’t meet the requirements only under certain circumstances, such as if they are seeing a terminally-ill patient.

Community Hospital South also will have volunteers at the entrances but they will not ask visitors questions unless they see them displaying flu-like symptoms, such as coughing, infection preventionist Gayle Walsh said.

The restrictions are not as strict as in 2009, when Franciscan St. Francis Health employees asked visitors a series of questions, then gave them color-coded stickers to let other employees know they were approved to visit, Stuteville said.

“We know the public will understand this and cooperate. It’s only a temporary measure,” Stuteville said.

In Johnson County, the health department has not asked hospitals or immediate care centers to place any restrictions, and Johnson Memorial Hospital is not limiting visitors at this time.

The hospital has had an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms, with 461 flu tests administered since December. But the hospital does not think restricting visitors is necessary, hospital director of business development Bill Oakes said.

“We only encounter restrictions if there are some special circumstances. We’d have to have a very, very serious epidemic,” Oakes said.

Like Johnson Memorial Hospital, local schools and assisted living facilities also have refrained from placing restrictions, and one assisted living facility lifted its visitor limitation.

Last week, the Franklin United Methodist Community ended a monthlong restriction on visitors in which the assisted living facility stopped seeing residents with flu-like symptoms, executive director Keith Van Deman said.

The facility had been canceling visits from outside groups, such as students from local schools, and limiting visits from residents’ family members, but Van Deman said he thought the restrictions were no longer necessary because no residents have the flu.

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