Flu outbreak leads SVMC to limit visitors

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BENNINGTON — With the state of Vermont suffering from a spike in influenza cases, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center has taken steps to limit hospital visits and keep their patients healthy.

The hospital on Wednesday announced that, until further notice, anyone with flu or flu-like symptoms, including but not limited to cough, fever, diarrhea, and rash, or anyone who has been exposed to a contagious illness in the last 14 days is asked not to visit patients. Additionally, said the hospital in a release, no visitors under the age of 18 will be allowed in the hospital until further notice. A sign has been placed in the hospital lobby advising the public of these changes.

SVMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trey Dobson said on Thursday that the hospital last took these steps in 2014. "It's specifically to protect patients," he said, "because we have a lot of vulnerable patients at the hospital. If we have visitors that are early in their flu symptoms and maybe don't yet realize that they have it, they can spread it."

SVMC Communications & Marketing Specialist Ashley Jowett said that under extenuating circumstances, guests excluded by the above policy who must visit a patient due to extenuating circumstances will be required to wear a mask and follow the following additional rules: to wash or sanitize their hands before and after visiting, to stay in the patient's hospital room and not visit other patients, and to limit visitors to a maximum of two visitors per patient room at any time.

Dobson said that examples of such circumstances might include visiting a recently born or dying relative, and said they also apply to potential visitors under the age of 18.

The Vermont Department of Health, in their last weekly influenza update, for the last week of January, said that levels of influenza-like-illness were widespread across the state. ILIs accounted for 6.5 percent of emergency room visits across the state that week, about higher than the previous week's total of 3.5 percent and well above the 10-year average for the fourth week in January, which is about 3 percent.

"There is an increased number of cases," said Dobson, "most likely due to a less than optimal match (between this year's prevalent strains) and this year's vaccine." However, he said, the flu vaccines are still effective against many strains, and recommended that anyone who has not yet been vaccinated do so as soon as possible. "Getting one now will still help," he said.

"Although the vaccine this year is not a full match with the strain of influenza, it provides a significant amount of immunity and still can reduce the severity of illness," said Jowett.

Dobson said that flu outbreaks place an additional burden on the hospital, both in terms of increased patient load and staff members getting sick, but he said that so far SVMC has been up to the challenge. However, he said, patients with certain symptoms who are not part of vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, newborns, children, and the elderly, are being asked to stay home and rest, rather than go to the hospital. "For normally healthy people, the medication (olestamivir, for which a common brand is Tamiflu) is not necessarily recommended," he said.

Dobson said that there are several prominent strains of influenza this year, but that of the ILI patients they are seeing, nausea and vomiting is more common than usual and coughing is less common. He said this year's strains are proving no more difficult to treat than in past years, and that to this point there is no indication of them developing resistance to medication.

There is no way to no how long this outbreak will last, or how long the hospital will keep the amended visitation rules active, but Dobson said that no matter what the incidence of influenza tends to wane by March.

Even for those who have been vaccinated, Dobson recommended washing your hands more frequently throughout the season, as much as two to three times more than average, as well as coughing and sneezing into your sleeve and avoiding those who have the flu if possible.

You can read the most recent information about influenza in Vermont at www.healthvermont.gov/immunizations-infectious-disease/influenza/flu-activity-and-surveillance.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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