By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Anna Jaques Hospital is tightening its visitor policy in response to one of the worst flu seasons in recent years.
The new policy, which went into effect this week, restricts children under age 18 from visiting patients and limits each patient to only two visitors at any time.
The hospital is also asking visitors who have symptoms of influenza, such as fever, sore throat or cough, or who live with someone who is experiencing those symptoms to not come to see patients.
While some exceptions will be made to allow healthy siblings to visit newborns in the birth center, hospital officials are instituting the measures in hopes of protecting children, patients and their families as well as their employees from being exposed to and spreading the flu virus.
“We are joining hospitals nationwide in taking this step as an added precaution throughout the flu season,” stated a release by the hospital. “Of course, limited exceptions for special circumstance visitations will be made on a case-by-case basis.
“We recognize this may cause an inconvenience for some, but the health and safety of our patients, families and employees must remain our top priority.”
Port Healthcare Center in Newburyport, part of the Whittier Health Network, has similar precautions in place.
Signs are posted in the lobby of the facility on Low Street, and the staff is recommending people under the age of 14 or with weakened or compromised immune systems refrain from visiting patients. Employees who have not received a flu shot are being asked to wear masks while at work.
“We try to keep (the flu) out of buildings as much as possible,” said Alfred Arcidi, director of marketing and communications for the Whittier Health Network.
Anna Jaques Hospital is reporting it has treated 79 cases of the flu this season, with the virus hitting people early and hard this year.
Dr. Joseph Gross, an infectious disease physician with River Valley Infectious Disease Specialists in Newburyport, said given the severity of the virus this season, it’s important “to do whatever we can to protect those people must vulnerable and at highest risk of contracting influenza.”
In addition to the change in the visitor policy, Gross said Anna Jaques has also made surgical masks available for people with respiratory problems who need to come into the hospital for a diagnostic test or other appointment.
Gross said he’s gone so far as to ask patients displaying flu-like symptoms to don a mask and has suggested that their family members stay home if they are at all ill. He’s found most people are accepting of the requests and willing to heed the precautionary measures.
Massachusetts public health officials this week said reported cases of the flu have dropped statewide for a second consecutive week. New state figures released yesterday show the percentage of people visiting health care providers with flu-like symptoms dropped to 2.4 percent after reaching nearly 4.5 percent earlier in the month. A small decline in flu-related hospitalizations was also reported.
Gross said he has yet to see a noticeable decline among his patient base, which tends to include individuals with underlying health issues.
While the number of cases statewide may be on the decline, Gross said people shouldn’t necessarily be fooled into thinking the flu season in Massachusetts has peaked or that the season is over, he said.
“The flu can be very unpredictable, especially with it peaking so early in the year,” Gross said. “It’s hard to say it’s gone for good and not just be leveling off or even if there will be another spike before the season is over.”
And for those who have not heeded the call to get a flu shot? Gross is still recommending they roll up their sleeve.
“It’s still the single best preventative measure,” he said. “It’s not too late. It’s never too late.”
Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.