When the coronavirus first appeared on the Delmarva Peninsula in March, hospitals severely limited visitors, in order to prevent spread of the disease and prevent strain on hospital care systems.

Like nursing homes, hospitals house people who are the most medically vulnerable to COVID-19, a respiratory illness that attacks the lungs, but can also be spread by people who do not show symptoms. Starting around March 20, all hospital patients were limited to two, one or even zero guests at medical facilities in the area. This included Beebe Healthcare, Atlantic General Hospital (AGH), Nanticoke Memorial Hospital and Peninsula Regional Medical Center (PRMC).

“We know it has been very difficult for many of our patients to go through medical procedures and recovery without the support of a loved one,” said Dr. Sarah Arnett, DNP, MS, RN, NEA-BC, vice president of PRHS Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer. “Patients’ loved ones not only provide emotional support, but also can learn from our care team more about a patient’s condition and what they will need when they are discharged.”

Instead, friends, family and loved ones have been encouraged to use electronic devices and mobile applications (such as phones, FaceTime or Skype) to keep in contact with patients.

Masks are required in all medical offices. People who are unable to wear a face covering should not visit. Upon entry, all visitors will be screened for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone who is feeling ill or feverish should not visit, and will not be allowed to visit if they are found to have a fever or symptoms.

This will assist in keeping the risk of infection lower as COVID-19 continues to circulate in the community.

“Patient safety is still our priority. We hope that everyone will respect the need to limit visitation, screen visitors and require wearing a mask. It is important to keep the risk of COVID-19 as low as possible for our patients [as] we help them heal,” said Ray Fulkrod Jr., DNP, vice president at PRHS and Nanticoke chief nursing officer.

On Aug. 17, Peninsula Regional Health System (PRHS) changed visitor restrictions for all facilities, including PRMC in Salisbury, Md., and Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford, Del. Now, patients may choose one guest to visit them during their hospital stay (except for patients who have/may have COVID-19). This is not one at a time, but a single visitor appointed by the patient.

PRMC and Nanticoke also allow one escort with every emergency department patient. At Nanticoke Memorial Hospital, visitors should use the main entrance. At PRMC, visitors should enter via the Hanna Outpatient Entrance, located near Visitor Parking Garage B off Vine Street.

For regular doctor appointments, patients should go alone when possible. Guests will be asked to wait in the vehicle, unless the patient needs assistance.

Most of Beebe Healthcare’s restrictions remain in effect, but patients may now have one healthy visitor at Beebe’s emergency departments at the Margaret H. Rollins Lewes Campus and at the South Coastal Health Campus. (This does not apply if the patient is COVID-19 positive or coming for COVID-19 testing.) The one visitor may not leave the ED or swap with another visitor. Also, if the patient is admitted into the hospital, the visitor may not accompany them to the inpatient area unless it is a pediatric patient.

In general, Beebe continues its no-visitor policy for those who are admitted to the hospital, except in special circumstances. One healthy visitor is permitted at Beebe hospital as follows: patients on comfort care; specialty physician outpatient visits; labor and delivery; patients undergoing procedure or surgical procedure including urgent or emergent surgery; and pediatric patients (second visitor also allowed in the operating room’s waiting area). For details, patients should contact their health provider prior to the visit.

“We understand the comfort of having a loved one or friend with you during a lab or imaging appointment, or accompanying you to the hospital or physician visit, but for the safety of all, it is vital that we follow these guidelines until it is safe for Beebe Healthcare to ease restrictions,” said David A. Tam, MD, MBA, FACHE, president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare. “…We thank you for your patience and understanding during this unprecedented time.”

Limiting visitors and the amount of people in waiting rooms can also provide a safe, physically-distanced area for patients.

On June 1, Beebe began its recovery phase with the reactivation of elective procedures and lab and imaging (now by appointment only).

In Berlin, Md., Atlantic General Hospital and Health System has tweaked the policy for emergency room guests. Starting June 26, an emergency department patient can be accompanied by one family member/significant other, who must remain with the patient for the entire visit.

Otherwise, visitors are still not permitted inside the hospital, at urgent care facilities or physician offices (with an exception for those who are caregivers of an individual seeking medical care). Anyone just providing transportation for a patient is asked to wait in their vehicle.

Certain exceptions to the policy may be made in particular circumstances and with prior approval, including for end-of-life care; required caregivers; and two parents/caregivers of pediatric patients, as long as neither adult has flu-like symptoms.

For more information on each hospital system, visit www.atlanticgeneral.org, beebehealthcare.org, www.peninsula.org or www.nanticoke.org.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.