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As protests over visitation policies continue, decision lies with hospital work group

Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 11:29 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Families are anxiously awaiting word about whether visitor policies at Alaska’s largest hospital might be changed.

Pandemic procedures at Providence Alaska Medical Center remain under scrutiny after people began protesting the rules this past week. On Sunday, a group gathered to chant and wave signs in protest of the policies; since last Thursday, Marvin Abbott, of Kodiak, has been camped outside the hospital as he pushes for officials to let him in to see his daughter.

“I’m hoping to be able to get in and be with her,” he said. “I last talked with the doctor just this afternoon. End of the conversation? How did it go: She’s all, ‘Marvin, I’m worried about Rachelle.’"

Rachelle, his daughter, is in the intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center, a section of the hospital for which there are no visitor exemptions right now — outside of end-of-life cases — due to the coronavirus pandemic. Abbott said that with little responsiveness on Rachelle’s end, he may be left to make some “difficult decisions” from outside the hospital’s walls.

“But if we’re down to days,” he said through tears, “I should be with her.”

[RELATED: Father to camp outside hospital until allowed to visit daughter in critical condition]

Though the board at Providence Alaska Medical Center met Tuesday evening, it was not anticipated that they would formally take up the top of visitation policies, according to the hospital’s communications director. That decision will be made by the hospital’s Visitation Workgroup, put in place when the visitor restrictions were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic.

However, even if work group made the decision to adjust visitation restrictions, that would only be a first step in making them actually happen. Staff at Providence would still need to determine how the changes could be implemented, including what new procedures would be needed and how to put them into place. The directors of each unit then figure out plans for their sections, and go from there.

Providence Alaska Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bernstein said late last week that the hospital is doing its best to provide alternatives to patients and their loved ones, and that barring people from coming in is a difficult thing to have to do.

“We have meetings at least weekly where we look at visitation, because it’s very hard for us to deny people to visit,” he said. “When the pandemic started, we were most concerned about how to ration care, not having enough rooms or ventilators and having to make those decisions. But it’s not easy to tell people they can’t visit their families.”

The hospital has cited concerns about the fragility of patients in the ICU as a primary reason to limit visitors to the wing. According to the Municipality of Anchorage COVID-19 Response website, there were at least 2,399 active cases of coronavirus within municipal lines, while at least 1,185 cases are considered recovered. Just 71 of 642 non-ICU hospital beds and 28 of 82 ICU beds in the Anchorage area remain available.

Around dinner time on Tuesday, Abbott was alone, sitting under a tarp outside the hospital, but his quiet time was cut short by several visitors. A family member brought him food and a new visitor, two siblings and their mom brought along flowers and a card, and an Anchorage woman whom he met since camping out showed up for moral support.

“I want people to know that they’re not alone,” said Amber Glasser - who found out just a few days ago that she and Rachelle have many mutual friends - pulled up a chair right next to Abbott. “I want people to know that we are here, and we’re fighting.”

Abbott said that thinking of his daughter, support of strangers and kin alike, and memories of brighter times are what’s keeping him going.

“We were sitting on this side of Alyeska one time,” he reminisced, “and me and her and her brother and her mom were sitting there, sitting in the sunshine, just enjoying the view.”

[RELATED: Woman fights to visit husband in ICU despite COVID-19 restrictions]

The rain had stopped for a bit Tuesday evening, but for Abbott and the others waiting to be able to visit their loved ones in person, the fight seems to just be getting started.

“Very anxious, especially today, awaiting the board’s decision,” said Lisa Butler, whose husband is in the ICU after an ATV crash on Sept. 3. Butler shared her story publicly last week. Since then, Kyle has made some progress, but the road ahead is a long one, Butler said.

“I’ve gone back and forth on feeling hopeful, and feeling like it’s not going to happen," she said, “so my emotions are kind of all over the place. But I really want to thank the community for the support. Really, what opened my eyes up is, you feel like you’re all alone, and suddenly, you realize there are so many people going through this terrible time.”

Providence said it did not have an update on procedures as of Tuesday evening. In a prepared statement sent Wednesday morning, a hospital spokesperson said no changes to visitation policies are planned at this time.

“The Visitation Workgroup will continue to meet weekly and evaluate requests for exceptions and opportunities to reduce restrictions at a time when it is safe for patients, our caregivers and the community," the statement said. "Although many things are taken into consideration before making changes to our visitation policy, one thing that would need to happen is a reverse of the current trend of daily case rates, which show continued evidence of spread throughout the community.”

The hospital encouraged mask-wearing, good hand hygiene, and social distancing, and said it will continue to collaborate with other hospitals so that changes made to visitation policies are consistent across Anchorage.

Correction: This story has been edited to clarify that the ICU does have a visitor exception for end-of-life patients, who are allowed one visitor at a time during the pandemic. You can see the full list of exemptions by clicking here. This story has also been edited to clarify that visitor decisions are only up to the Visitation Workgroup, not the board.

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