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Scott G Winterton, KSL

Parents of NICU babies frustrated as visitation rules become more strict

By Ryan Miller, | Posted - Mar. 26, 2020 at 2:00 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Holly Nelson, an Intermountain Healthcare media relations specialist, wanted to be sure. She had checked the policies regarding visitors in the morning, but it had been hours ago — and in the new COVID-19 world, things can change rapidly.

She made a quick call to confirm that what she had been told earlier was still the same hours later.

That’s been the reality in hospitals across the Wasatch Front, and throughout the state, as caregivers try to keep up with the ever-changing visitation rules due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, University of Utah Health implemented its new policy restricting visitors amid the outbreak as COVID-19 cases in Utah hit 402.

The fluid, evolving policies have not only created confusion for nurses and staff, but also frustration for parents of newborns.

Reid Reynolds, who has a newborn child in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, has been told that he’s one of the lucky ones, or at least as lucky as one can be in his situation.

Over the last few weeks, as the pandemic got closer and closer to home, Reynolds has seen visitation rules become increasingly more strict as the hospitals battle the spread of the virus.

"When they first started doing away with visitors, my wife and I were worried," Reynolds said. "I was just like ‘If this gets bad enough, are you guys going to lock your doors to everybody?’"

That hasn't happened yet; but for some fathers in his similar situation, that’s what it may feel like. Intermountain Healthcare is only allowing one visitor per day for patients under 18, and that includes the NICU (both parents are still allowed to see healthy newborns). So if a mother is breastfeeding, it makes it hard for the father to see his child, which is why a nurse told Reynolds he was lucky.

"At least you guys can trade-off," Reynolds said, remembering what a nurse told him. "Because when there are babies in there that are breastfeeding, if the mom has to produce the milk every day for the baby, then, yeah, dad can't go in."

It is something the hospital is constantly looking at, Nelson said. She understands the pain parents are feeling and said there are circumstances where a nurse manager can allow both parents to see their baby.

"Extenuating circumstances are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the nurse manager," Nelson said. "I think what's most important, is that we balance that with protecting our tiny patients and their caregivers from exposure during this COVID-19. I understand parents are frustrated."

That frustration comes from the new policy, but also because of the lack of information surrounding it. Some parents who spoke to said they have been able to work with nurse managers to find resolutions, but others, like Reynolds, have been searching for answers.

And those answers have been hard to come by.

"When I would talk to nurses, they would just say they're just confused as I am," Reynolds said. "And then they directed me to the NICU manager, and she said she didn't understand it either."

He went up the chain of command and was eventually referred to patient advocacy, only to be given what he thought were unsatisfactory explanations.

"I guess the answer that I got is it's one less pair of shoes coming in the building," Reynolds said. "I understand if you have two strangers and they're living totally different lives and different lifestyles, different houses, probably different versions of personal hygiene, but when you're talking about parents of one child: they live together, they sleep together — I mean, they do everything but share the same toothbrush.

"So it's not really doing anything except causing stress on an already stressful situation, in my opinion."

The new hospital guidelines only allow two visitors for obstetric patients, healthy newborns and end-of-life patients. Nelson said the reason for not including NICU babies in that is because of how at-risk they can be.

"They're typically premature," Nelson said. "They have health conditions. They're at risk, right? So that would be the difference. They can talk with the nurse manager if they've got an extenuating circumstance. We’re happy to do that. I think that there may have been some confusion with some of the signs."

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