Intermountain Healthcare is relaxing some of the limitations on hospital and clinic visitors put in place for the COVID-19 pandemic as case counts continue to decline in Utah, but masks will still have to be worn in lobbies, hallways and other common areas.
“COVID isn’t gone and hospitals are not grocery stores,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician. “We still have very sick and vulnerable patients in our hospitals, so we absolutely need visitors to continue to wear masks. That really is to protect the other patients in the hospitals.”
Stenehjem said the lifting of restrictions on visiting hours and, in many cases, the number of visitors a hospital or clinic patient can see at a time is similar to pre-COVID-19 policy. The region’s largest health care system has adjusted its visitor policies several times throughout the pandemic that began more than two years ago.
During the height of the most recent surge that sent cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus soaring to record levels in Utah earlier this year, Intermountain restricted most overnight visitors. At one point in the pandemic, there were COVID-19 patients who were unable to have visitors at all, even when they were dying.
“We obviously had to learn a lot about transmission in the hospital and how to keep our patients safe,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve clearly learned that visitation is a huge patient satisfier. We need our loved ones around us when we are sick.”
The doctor said the relaxing of restrictions on visitors may help with patient recovery.
“I think it will. I sure hope it will, to be able to have access to loved ones there in person. I know that it certainly will have an impact on patient satisfaction. I would only imagine that it would only improve patients outcomes,” Stenehjem said.
The latest changes will allow masks to be taken off in patient rooms when caregivers are not present. There are also special guidelines for visiting some types of patients, including those with COVID-19, detailed on the health care system’s website.
Visitors will be turned away if they have symptoms of COVID-19, flu or similar disease, or live with someone who is sick. Those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or who are in close contact with someone who has, must wait five days to visit.
The easing of visitor restrictions comes as COVID-19 is once again surging in much of Europe and Asia. While China and other countries in Asia are dealing with omicron, European countries are seeing outbreaks of so-called “stealth omicron,” a subvariant scientists refer to as BA.2, that is starting to spread in the United States.
“We are seeing here in the U.S. a rising proportion of the cases that we do have are BA.2. We’re now here in Utah, probably around 20%. New York City and the east coast is certainly higher than that,” Stenehjem said, adding that Americans likely have more immunity to the subvariant from previous infections than Europeans.
“There’s a lot of people that were infected with BA.1 (the original omicron variant) and that’s going to protect us to an extent from a significant BA.2 surge,” the doctor said. “I do anticipate that cases will likely rise in the next few weeks from BA.2. But I’m really hoping we’re not talking about spikes and surges.”
The decision to change visitation now rather than waiting to see what happens with the subvariant was deliberate.
“We’re cautiously optimistic about what’s to come over the next few months,” Stenehjem said. “That being said, we’re going to watch our case counts very closely and if we need to pivot back to a previous visitation policy, we’ll do that.”
Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported 120 new COVID-19 cases in the state. There were also six additional deaths from the virus, including three that occurred prior to Feb. 18. One previously reported death was retracted following further study by the medical examiner, the state health department said.
University of Utah Health is expected to announce changes to its visitation policies soon.
“At this time we’re maintaining our current policies,” U. Health spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said in a statement. “However we’re reviewing all of our protocols and expect to evolve our visiting and masking policies in the near term.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new “community levels” guidelines for determining when masks and other precautions should be recommended against COVID-19 have raised questions about whether face coverings are still needed in hospitals.
Under the new guidelines, which doubled the previous threshold for masking, a weekly average of 100 new virus cases per 100,000 people, and now also factors in COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospital beds, most of the nation’s counties — including all of Utah’s — are at the lowest level of risk.
But the American Hospital Association said in a special bulletin to members that hospitals and other health care settings are not subject to the new guidelines “meaning regardless of a community’s status under the new metrics, local health care settings should continue to require visitors to wear masks indoors.”
Jill Vicory, Utah Hospital Association vice president of member and community affairs, said “a couple” of rural hospitals have contacted the state association because they’re being pressed by providers to explain why masking needs to continue.
“In their environment, they would like to get away from masking as soon as possible,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic, it’s been harder for rural communities with smaller caseloads “to see the need for so many of these protective measures, including masking. Nobody loves to mask. I don’t know anybody that likes to,” Vicory said. “At the same time, we want to protect our employees and the people coming into the hospital.”
Some Utah hospitals are relaxing mask mandates in non-medical areas, such as a billing office, she said. The state association has not made specific recommendations about masking in hospitals, Vicory said, but does refer members to what the CDC and American Hospital Association has advised if asked.