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Monroe County hospitals ease visitor restrictions as COVID-19 cases decline

Administrators at URMC (pictured) and Rochester Regional Health are relaxing their restrictions on visitors as the spread of COVID-19 slows in Monroe County.
Administrators at URMC (pictured) and Rochester Regional Health are relaxing their restrictions on visitors as the spread of COVID-19 slows in Monroe County.

As the spread of COVID-19 slows in Monroe County, hospitals that had implemented “zero-visitation” policies in March are now loosening those restrictions.

The two hospital systems in the county, Rochester Regional Health and the University of Rochester Medical Center, both said they are not opening visitation policies up to the same relaxed standards as before the novel coronavirus arrived, but they are now allowing some visitors for some patients.

Throughout the epidemic, the hospital systems have allowed some exceptions to the no-visitors policy for patients who are children, mothers giving birth, and extreme circumstances. Those exceptions remain in place.

The local health care systems are following in the footsteps of a pilot program that began last month after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed some visits to resume at some hospitals in the state.

Patients who have COVID-19 still cannot receive visitors at Rochester Regional and URMC, nor can long-term care patients unless they are at the end of their lives.

Patients who are approved to receive visitors can designate only two people to fill that role. Only one person is allowed to visit at a time.

The hospital systems said they will screen visitors for symptoms of coronavirus infection, and all visitors will be registered in an electronic system that the hospitals said will enable contact tracers to track them down if there’s evidence that the virus has spread inside the building.

Other details of the new policies are slightly different between the two systems (Rochester Regional’s full policy is here, and URMC’s is here), but they share a recognition that visits from loved ones help people heal.

“What comes into play is the risk of COVID versus the risk of not having visitors,” said URMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Apostolakos.

Initially, Apostolakos said, the balance was toward preventing COVID-19. “We knew that we were in a dangerous place. We were concerned about being overrun with COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Now, with more knowledge about how the virus spreads, hospitals have been successful at taming its transmission, said Apostolakos. “We believe the risk to our patients of not having families visit … is outweighing the risk of COVID.”

Still, he cautioned, “I say that with some trepidation.”

He and Dr. Robert Mayo, the chief medical officer at Rochester Regional Health, said visitation policies in the hospitals are a function of people’s actions in the wider community.

“We need to keep doing what we know works, from an epidemiological perspective,” Mayo said. “We need to wear masks. We need to distance. We need to be washing our hands.”

They said they were able to relax visitor restrictions both because the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has dropped, and because the spread of the virus in the community has slowed.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, the Monroe County public health commissioner, said the new policies reflect a decreased -- but not eliminated -- burden on the local health care system.

“We’re in a better place now. We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “Thankfully, the community has rallied. We’ve done what we thought was unimaginable, and we’ve flattened the curve.”

If community spread picks up again, the doctors said, they will reevaluate the policies.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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