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Wellstar Visitation Policies Change Based on Cases of COVID-19 In Community

GRIFFIN - Pike County Times has been contacted by readers with both complaints and praise for local hospitals during this time of COVID-19. Pike County Times reached out to both Upson Regional Medical Center (URMC) and Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital to inquire about their visitation policies.

This is a phone interview with a spokesperson for Wellstar Health System.

Visitation Has Been Restricted Due to COVID-19

In late January, a spokesperson for Wellstar Health System spoke with Pike County Times and reviewed the Wellstar Enhanced Visitor Guidelines. These guidelines are color coded – green, yellow, and red – for each of the Wellstar Hospital locations to indicate if, when, and how many essential caregivers can visit patients.

These guidelines are based on the COVID-19 Community Positive Rate 7-day Outbreaks and number of cases per 100,000 in any given area. The spokesperson said at the time of the call that many areas in Georgia were experiencing record highs compared to earlier in the pandemic.

The current color code at Wellstar Spalding Regional and all of the hospitals in the Wellstar System, according to the Wellstar website, is red. This does not allow visitation. The current color change was instituted before Thanksgiving when Wellstar started seeing an uptick in patients that continued afterward into Christmas and New Year’s Day.

There was a surge in patients around Thanksgiving that brought Wellstar to over capacity in a majority of its facilities. Those colors may change at specific hospitals based on hospital location and the number of COVID-19 cases in the area as time goes on. “The reason everything is red right now is because we’re experiencing uptick and increase in cases in all of our service areas,” Wellstar said in January.

At this time, according to the website, the color level is red and reads as follows: “Positive COVID-19 case levels are high. No essential caregivers (visitors) are permitted.”

Basic Visitor Guidelines

Wellstar has a visitation policy that prioritizes the “health and safety of our patients, team members, and communities” and bases access on the number of COVID-19 cases in the local community. These guidelines determine how many essential caregivers, patient advocates, family members and loved ones can visit patients based on the color code and restricts access when the number of cases is high.

The policy states that there are exceptions for special circumstances related to compassionate care, end of life, obstetrics, and developmental or cognitive impairment. It also states some specific cases in which patients and caregivers can ask for an exception. This includes minors, pediatric, emergency room, and inpatient/outpatient surgery patients. “All exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis by the administrator on- call, and essential caregivers may be asked to sign an acknowledgment of risk form.”

Wellstar also states that it can provide updates and information on patient care with caregivers upon patient approval. Caregivers and loved ones can also receive procedures, instructions, and post- treatment information on MyChart as well as the patient being provided with a copy upon discharge.

Readers can see this information at: https://www.wellstar.org/education/pages/press-releases/2020/enhanced-visitation-guidelines.aspx.

“No One Dies Alone”

Wellstar Health System is working to compassionately connect patients with their loved ones with the visitor policy through an Empathy- First” approach which applies even during COVID-19. This policy is based on specific family scenarios.

“For example, if we have got a patient who is at end of life, we are going to—on a case-by-case basis—work to try and make some of those empathy- first exceptions. “The last thing that we want is for people to die alone,” Wellstar said. “Whenever possible and whenever we can do this as safely as possible with the right PPE (personal protective equipment) and the scenario calls for it, we want to consider if they can have a loved one with them.”

Staff is also working with technology to connect patients with their loved ones. Community donations to the Wellstar Foundation have made it possible for there to be a tablet device in all facilities to connect patients and loved ones. Wellstar advised that this is being used with COVID-19 patients as well as other patients at the hospitals when some regular patients may not be able to have essential caregivers stay with them at the hospital or patients want to connect with remote family and friends who cannot visit them at the hospital.

Wellstar also has a “No One Dies Alone” approach which helps to ensure that patients either have an essential caregiver or clergy member by their side in their time of need. “Essentially it is to make sure that we have someone there for our patients in their final days, minutes, and time of need,” the spokesperson said. She said that they also make sure that patients are connected to family and that team members support patients who may not have family.

Wellstar advised that during the red phase, patients admitted for end-of-life care or patients being evaluated for or receiving hospice care may have two visitors at a time, including patients who are suspected of having or who are COVID positive.

Additional Visitation

There is a policy for labor and delivery that allows one essential caregiver during the red phase for the duration of the stay. “You’re not going to go in and have a baby alone,” she said. A certified birth coach or doula is also allowed to be present during the delivery.

Wellstar also advised that minors 0 up to 18 years old can have two designated caregivers present, including in the emergency department. She also advised that elderly patients who have developmental or cognitive impairment or compassionate care needs, the empathy- first would come into play.

“Wellstar is committed to keep our patients, visitors, team members, and communities safe,” she said. “We also recognize that there are situations where it makes sense to have at least one essential care giver whenever possible.”

Visitors are screened at the entrance. They are asked fill out a questionnaire and have their temperatures taken. They are also given the PPE that is required for the level of care that the patient is undergoing.

“One of the biggest challenges that our health systems have across the state and across the nation is staffing,” she said. Almost all of our facilities are filled to capacity with not only COVID-19 patients but with other patients, which has put a strain on staffing. “There may be instances where we just don’t have the staff to support visitors, but in every instance, we are going to do our very best to put empathy first and make sure that our patients have what they need, and that often includes an essential caregiver,” she said.

Latest COVID-19 Information

Wellstar Health System is continuing to work with the Department of Public Heath to actively vaccinate its team members as well as those who are age 65 and older. It has also been working to help vaccinate residents and staff in long-term care health facilities. “As one of the largest healthcare systems in Georgia, we are very active in providing vaccines to patients in the current vaccine phase and Wellstar continues to follow the guidance direction of the DPH," she said.

Following the first vaccine doses delivered in January, Wellstar scheduled an initial 10,000 Covid-19 vaccinations as it participated in the Phase 1A COVID-19 vaccination program. According to a press release, “The expansion of the eligible vaccination criteria for the current phase was announced by Georgia DPH on December 30 with the goal of accelerating vaccinations for populations most at risk of exposure, transmission, and severity of disease.”

Those who are patients of Wellstar can go to www.wellstar.org and click on My Chart for more information about future vaccination appointments. Those who are not Wellstar patients can go to the Department of Health website at https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-vaccination-site to find a vaccination site near them.

Click here to read about Upson Regional Medical Center's visitation policies.