Area hospitals alter visitation for flu season

Influenza incidence has increased around the area,  prompting hospitals in the Northern Shenandoah Valley to alter their visitation policies to help protect visitors, staff and other patients from illness.

Effective Tuesday morning, visiting hours at all Valley Health hospitals will be limited to four hours a day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Except in special circumstances, visitors must be age 18 or older, and no more than two visitors may visit at the same time.

Those with symptoms of a flu-like illness are urged to stay home.

This is a typical response to flu season, said Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.

Valley Health isn’t only altering its hours. Visits from family and friends also will include signing in, wearing a visitor ID, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks to help prevent the spread of disease.

“The reasons for that are several and they are appropriate,” Devine said. “… Right now the age group showing the highest rates of infection is kids and adolescents.”

Facilities affected by the change include Winchester Medical Center, Winchester Rehabilitation Center, Warren Memorial Hospital, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and Page Memorial Hospital, as well as West Virginia hospitals of Hampshire Memorial Hospital and War Memorial Hospital. Visitation restrictions will remain in place until flu season concludes in late winter or early spring.

Though Devine recommends a flu shot to anyone 6 months or older, he admitted this year’s vaccine has not been as effective as it might have been.

Each year, the vaccine protects against three or four varieties of influenza, he said.

Last February, health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the inclusion of the H3N2 virus in this season’s vaccine would help offer the best combination of protection against current flu strains. But H3N2 hasn’t been as prevalent as thought, and the vaccine did not account for new strains.

Creating a flu vaccine is ongoing from one year to the next, Devine said. “It’s not something you can predict from year to year.”

“But that’s not to say that the vaccine is ineffective,” he said. “Some protection is better than no protection.”

The young and the old are at greater risk, he said. “[But] the truth of the matter is flu can cause severe illness in anyone that can get it.”

Flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, cough and shortness of breath. In children, it can present with paleness and loss of appetite.

To help prevent against flu, follow proper hygiene practices like covering sneezes and coughs and washing hands before eating or caring for others. Those who are sick should seek medical attention as soon as possible and stay home from work or other activities, Devine said.

Since flu symptoms can mimic those of other illnesses, such as strep throat, Devine advised consulting a physician to determine proper treatment before symptoms worsen.

“The sooner you start the medicine the better it is able to help,” he said.

The Associated Press reported Monday that two children age 4 or under have died from the flu in eastern Virginia.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com