Local hospitals are continuing a higher level of restrictions for visitors even as the numbers of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations decline.
On Thursday, 57 patients were hospitalized with covid-19 at Northwest Arkansas hospitals, down from 67 last week, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council. The all-time high was 173 patients on Aug. 11.
Non-covid-19 patients at Washington Regional, Mercy, Northwest Health and Baptist Health are all restricted to one visitor, with varying hours and policies on labor and delivery patients, end-of-life care and other specialized situations, according to representatives.
The hospitals limited visitors to protect patients, staff and the community, representatives said.
Having fewer people coming in and out of the hospital limits potential exposure and spread of the virus, said Meredith Green, chief nursing officer for Washington Regional.
Washington Regional requires all visitors to wear a mask and go through a screening process when they enter the hospital, Green said. The hospital is better able to ensure preventative measures such as social distancing and compliance with masking are being followed by limiting the number of people in the facility, she said.
Washington Regional monitors infection rates and modifies the visitor policy accordingly, said spokeswoman Natalie Hardin. As of Friday, non-covid-19 inpatients are allowed one visitor a day between 1 and 7 p.m.
Covid-19 patients may only have visitors enter their rooms during end-of-life care, according to the hospital website. Obstetrics patients are allowed two support people and neonatal intensive care unit patients are allowed two parents and a support person.
Washington Regional stepped back from phase four of its four-tiered surge plan to phase three on Sept. 17 due to the decrease in covid-19 patients requiring inpatient care, Hardin said.
The changes allowed the hospital to consolidate its three covid-19 units into two units -- one for critical care and one for noncritical patients, she said.
Phase three also allowed the hospital to move staff back to their home departments and resume offering an expanded number of non-emergent procedures and surgeries, Hardin said.
Washington Regional's cafeteria is closed to visitors, but the gift shop is open, she said.
Mercy's Arkansas locations have had current restrictions in place since August, according to spokeswoman Mardi Taylor. The Rogers and Fort Smith locations both allow one visitor per person, per day between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. The visiting hours are based on current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mercy ministry guidelines, she said.
Labor and delivery policies allow for two support people, and covid-19 patients are not allowed visitors unless it is for end-of-life care, according to the hospital website.
Mercy's cafeterias and gift shops are closed to visitors, Taylor said.
Northwest Health, which has five hospitals in the region, also monitors the number of cases and hospitalizations in the community and adjusts its policies in response to the latest federal guidelines, said spokeswoman Abby Davenport. Some of the safety measures include limited entrances and visitor health screenings upon entry, she said.
Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except in intensive care units where visiting hours are 3 to 8 p.m., according to the hospital website. Visitors are allowed during end-of-life care at the physician's discretion, it states.
Visiting hours at Baptist Health vary by department, but most only allow one visitor or support person, according to the hospital website. The women's and children's departments are an exception and allow one birth partner and one support person, it states.
Impact on patients, staff
Not being able to have as many visitors is challenging for patients and staff, Green said. Having loved ones present impacts patients' well-being, so it's important to balance that need with the health and safety of patients and employees, she said.
In response to patient needs, Washington Regional created a communication nurse role that helps patients stay in touch with loved ones through virtual visits and serves as a liaison between the patient care team and the family, Green said.
Team members have stepped up to fill patients' needs and have spent more time with patients, providing additional assistance, Green said.
"Truly throughout the entire pandemic, staff has shown tremendous compassion and gone above and beyond to help patients stay connected to families," Green said.
The impact of limiting visitors depends on the patient, but Mercy makes visitation decisions out of concern for protecting patients, employees and the community, Taylor said.
"The visitor restrictions do not really affect staffing at the hospital other than we are required to have someone at the door to screen as someone comes in," said Dr. Paul Bean, chief of medical affairs at Mercy Fort Smith.
Davenport also noted visitors are important for patient well-being. Northwest Health facilitates virtual visits by video chat and phone calls, she said.
Decreasing covid-19 numbers
Covid-19 hospitalizations are also falling across the state. On Friday, 414 patients were hospitalized compared to 501 last week, according to Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health.
A total of 175 covid-19 patients in the state were in ICU and 123 were on ventilators, compared to 263 in ICU last week and 161 on ventilators.
The number of patients in ICU and on ventilators was steady in Northwest Arkansas. Forty-one ventilators and 104 ICU beds were in use in the region Thursday, compared to 41 ventilators and 106 ICU beds last week. The numbers represent both patients with covid-19 and other needs.
Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith reported 26 covid-19 hospitalizations Thursday, with nine patients in ICU, Taylor said.
There were 26 covid-19 patients hospitalized at Baptist Health-Fort Smith, including 11 in covid critical care units and eight on ventilators, spokesperson Alicia Agent said.
On Friday, there were 77 new cases of covid-19 in Benton County, 34 new cases in Washington County, 35 new cases in Sebastian County and 19 new cases in Crawford County, according to the Health Department.
Nearly 65% of those 12 and older in Benton and Washington counties are fully or partially vaccinated, according to data from the department. Sebastian and Crawford counties are slightly behind, with around 55% fully or partially vaccinated.
The four counties saw 22 new covid-19 related deaths this week, for a total of 1,617 since the pandemic began, according to data from the department.
Covid panel discussion
Five local physicians will convene at 9 a.m. Thursday for a virtual panel discussion and question-and-answer session on covid-19 in Northwest Arkansas as part of the Onward Ozarks Speaker Series.
The event will take place via Zoom. Monday is the deadline to register.
The panel was developed in partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council and its Health Care Transformation Division for the council’s Onward Ozarks program.
Randy Wilburn, founder and host of the “I am Northwest Arkansas” podcast, will moderate the event.
Panelists will include:
• Sonal Bhakta, MD, internal medicine, Mercy
• Michael Bolding, DO, hospitalist, Washington Regional Medical Center
• David Deschamps, MD, maternal and fetal medicine, Mercy
• Sheldon Riklon, MD, family medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest and Community Clinic
• Martha Sharkey, MD, city of Fayetteville health director
To register, visit bit.ly/3GbiN4O