The number of people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 who need to go to hospital is increasing.
So family members and friends will be asking whether they can visit their loved ones. People will also want to visit patients in hospital for another reason. Perhaps they’ve just given birth or are recovering after a heart attack.
Whether you can visit or not depends on a mix of policies put in place nationally, by the states, and by individual hospitals.
And as the situation can change daily, it’s best to check the hospital’s website or phone ahead to avoid being refused entry at the hospital gates.
Why are more people in hospital?
The number of new cases diagnosed with the coronavirus each day in Australia is decreasing. But the number of people expected to be hospitalised with a suspected or confirmed case is still increasing.
This is due to the time lag, because whether there’s a need to hospitalise a patient for COVID-19 only becomes evident around the fifth day after diagnosis, sometimes even later. Further, patients with severe COVID-19 often have to remain in hospital for some time.
Initial estimates by the World Health Organisation predicted about 81% of COVID-19 infections to be mild or have no symptoms. But about 14% develop severe disease and require oxygen and 5% become critically unwell, requiring mechanical ventilation.
The latest data for Australia look a little better with 8% receiving hospital care, including 2% being in intensive care units (ICU).
This is much longer than the usual length of hospital stays which, for patients who spent at least one night in hospital, is 5.3 days overall.
How are hospital visits changing?
Before the coronavirus, hospitals encouraged family and friends to visit their loved ones as this can help reduce patients’ anxiety and stress, and may help them recover faster.
Visiting hours and hospital policies are set to limit traffic in and out of wards, allow treatment to take place and for patients to rest and recover.
Hospitals might also have asked visitors to clean their hands when they first arrived to avoid bringing infections in.
In light of COVID-19, much tougher restrictions are now in place to protect the patient, hospital staff and the visitors.
For patients with COVID-19, rules about visiting them in hospital, and especially in the ICU, may be very restricted. Visiting may be prohibited or, if allowed, only for a very short amount of time under extra precautions.
For example, in New South Wales, visitors must wear a surgical mask and protective eyewear if they are visiting a person suspected or confirmed to have coronavirus.
These restrictions are set nationally and by individual states, and adapted into the visiting policies of individual hospitals.
Different states have different rules
The most recent rules for Victoria allow patients in public, private and denominational hospitals only one visit per day, a maximum of two visitors at a time and for up to two hours.
However, you will be prohibited from visiting if you have:
- been diagnosed with coronavirus and should be in isolation
- arrived in Australia within the last 14 days
- recently come into contact with a person confirmed to have the coronavirus
- a temperature over 37.5℃ or symptoms of a respiratory infection.
These restrictions are in place regardless of whether your loved one has COVID-19 or is in hospital for another reason.
In some cases, visitors can stay longer than two hours. These exemptions include parents or carers of people under 18, carers of people with a disability, the partner or support person of someone giving birth, a person accompanying a patient to the emergency department, or a person providing end-of-life support.
Hospitals in Tasmania will make exceptions for people visiting their partners at the birth of a child, parents visiting dependent children and for “compassionate and end-of-life reasons”. But a person visiting under any of these exemptions still needs to check with the hospital.
Hospitals also have their own rules
Hospitals around the country have also restricted visiting hours and numbers beyond what the health departments are mandating.
For instance, at our hospital in Victoria, currently only one visitor per patient per day is allowed, and no children under 16. Visitors to our ICU are limited to a maximum of ten minutes whereas during labour one partner or support person can be there for 24 hours.
On entry, staff will screen you for symptoms and signs of COVID-19. This might be done by asking you a series of questions and/or checking your temperature.
So as the rules vary across states, territories, individual hospitals – and even different wards within a single hospital – check the latest restrictions for your state and hospital before planning a visit.
Maximilian de Courten, Professor in Global Public Health, Victoria University; Barbora de Courten, Professor and Specialist Physcian, Monash University; Erwin Loh, Group Chief Medical Officer, St Vincent’s Health Australia & Clinical Professor, Monash University, Monash University, and Georgia Soldatos, Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor, School Public Health and Preventative Medicine, Monash University