Explore appropriate ways to ease visitation restrictions

Visits to hospitals and other care facilities continue to be restricted as a countermeasure against the novel coronavirus. Even if it is difficult to resume full access, with signs that the virus is spreading anew, the adverse effects of restrictions are noticeable. Appropriate measures to ease restrictions must be explored.

A group of experts from the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry has compiled recommendations to encourage medical institutions and elderly nursing care facilities to ease their infection control measures. It urged hospitals and care facilities to ease limits on visits from family members and others in stages, since the number of patients seriously ill with COVID-19 is low.

In particular, hospitals are asked to give consideration to cases where there is a great need for visits, such as spending time with a person at the end of their life, attending a birth and the hospitalization of small children. It is important to allow people to spend time with their loved ones during critical life moments.

The recommendations say that the risk can be reduced by wearing masks and thoroughly disinfecting one’s hands as infection control measures, and by managing number of visitors, time, distance between visitors and the people they’ve come to see and ventilation of the room.

The adverse effects of restricting visits have long been argued. There have been reports of increased cognitive decline among elderly people and postpartum depression among mothers, as well as an increase in the amount of narcotics used for pain relief by terminally ill cancer patients. Loneliness may have affected all of these cases.

Amid the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of restrictions on visitation are becoming more serious. The currently prevalent omicron variant is considered to have a low risk of serious illness, and vaccinations have progressed. With this in mind, it may be time to consider easing restrictions while closely monitoring the situation.

However, there is deep-rooted concern among staff at hospitals and care facilities about the spread of infections that may accompany the easing of restrictions. Those who have experienced cluster infections in the past are more reluctant, fearing the disruption of operations and reputational damage.

The ministry has left the decision about easing restrictions up to each hospital or facility because their equipment and staffing differ. However, it may be worth consideration for the ministry to provide certain guidelines and conditions to support those that are having tough time with the decision.

The Kanagawa prefectural government has compiled guidelines for easing infection control measures at hospitals and care facilities. The guidelines also provide specific steps on how to deal with visits.

There are some cases of hospitals establishing their own standards on visits. They have classified alert levels based on factors including the infection situation in their local communities, the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital and the vaccination rate of inpatients, and have decided how to deal with visits accordingly.

Last year, the ministry published a collection of cases of hospitals that have allowed visitors. However, it was before the outbreak of the omicron variant and the situation has changed. The ministry must make efforts to disseminate the latest information.

Some facilities have not been able to provide online visitation due to delays in installing telecommunications equipment. Even if visiting restrictions continue, it is desirable to come up with ways to allow inpatients and residents to talk with their families and others.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2022)