By Sally Voth
The influenza outbreak sweeping the nation has led Valley Health administrators to substantially restrict who can visit patients and when.
Starting Sunday, only visitors 18 and older can visit patients at Winchester Medical Center, Warren Memorial Hospital, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, Page Memorial Hospital, Hampshire (W.Va.) Memorial Hospital and War Memorial Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., according to a news release issued Friday by the health system.
Each patient can have only two visitors at a time, and visiting hours will be 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., according to the release.
Normal visiting hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with up to four visitors at once in most departments, according to Winchester Medical Center's website.
Dr. Nicolas Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at the medical center, said the restrictions wouldn't start until Sunday in order to give Valley Health staff time to communicate them to patients and their families.
Such restrictions don't happen very often, he said.
"Every few years," Restrepo said. "I believe the last time it happened here was 2009. The reason this year is different is we have just seen an increase in the number of cases. It's in the best interests of patients and really everybody to restrict visitation."
On Thursday, Dr. Jack Potter, medical director of Winchester Medical Center's emergency department and director of emergency services at Valley Health, said an increase in flu cases was being compounded by an increase of other viruses.
Both doctors said Winchester Medical Center continues to operate at full-bed capacity.
The release states the restrictions are necessary because those infected with the flu can be contagious before they even realize they're sick.
It states there may be exceptions to the restrictions in certain cases when the visitor provides direct care to the patient.
Additionally, visitors to Winchester Medical Center will have to wear an ID badge that can be picked up at the South Tower's main entrance and the information desk on the new North Tower's first floor, according to the release. Other entrances won't be open for visitors.
Restrepo said the hospital has been fairly lenient when it came to visiting hours.
"You really can't be when you have this kind of public health issue going on," he said. "It's something that we're seeing throughout the state, really, and other parts of the country."
Restrepo stressed the importance of frequent hand washing.
"Even when you're out and about using self [checkouts] and gas pumps and things like that, a little hand sanitizer can go a long way toward preventing this for you," he said.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or email@example.com