Loved ones fight for entry as hospital COVID-19 precautions keep them outside

Marvin Abbott of Kodiak on September 11, 2020, after being denied visitation rights to his daughter due to COVID-19 safety precautions, camps outside of Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

When Marvin Abbott heard that his 26-year-old daughter was unconscious in the emergency room from complications of an asthma attack in Kodiak last week, he immediately went to the hospital, where he stood by her side for several hours.

But since she was medevaced to the ICU in Anchorage last Sunday, he hasn’t been able to see her. That’s because of Providence hospital’s strict policy on visitation for the ICU that has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic.

Abbott says it’s unfair, given the declining case numbers in the state and in Anchorage.

“Our numbers here just don’t justify these types of actions. It’s not right,” he said on Friday from a strip of sidewalk where he camped with a sleeping bag.

In fact, Anchorage’s new cases have been more or less steady after peaking in late July and are still above what the city considers a “high alert threshold.”

But Abbott has gathered many vocal supporters who came out to a protest over the weekend to demand the hospital let Marvin in. On Monday he was still there, four nights into his protest.

But officials at Providence point out that it’s the same as hospitals around the state and say it’s necessary in order to prevent COVID from spreading to the hospital’s most vulnerable patients in the ICU. A July study by the American College of Cardiology suggests that for patients who end up in the ICU who are infected with COVID-19, mortality rates are near 40%.

And there’s not just a risk for patients. A COVID-19 outbreak could also infect doctors and nurses, leading to a shortage of staff that could have community-wide repercussions.

“If our workers become ill, it can really impair our ability to care for the community,” said Providence Medical Director Dr. Michael Bernstein. That’s especially true in Anchorage, which provides medical care for much of the state.

Bernstein acknowledged that the hospital policy is difficult for patients and families and said the hospital is reevaluating its visitation policy weekly. The policy also sets up an ethical conflict for decision makers at Providence.

“Compassion is one of our core values, and so we want to care for the patients and their families and loved ones with compassion. And that is at odds with this need to restrict visitation,” he said.

The policy currently allows for visitation only during childbirth, if the patient is a minor or if they are at the end of their life. That is the minimum standard for visitation as spelled out in a state health mandate.

There is also a case-by-case exemption that would allow for one visitor from each family to visit. Bernstein said that over the past week, 12 people applied for the exemption and six people had one granted. It’s unclear whether Abbott applied for an exemption. Abbott himself said he wasn’t sure he had applied and had been given numerous forms of paperwork that he completed. Privacy laws prevent hospital officials from talking about a specific case.

But Abbott said his bigger goal was a policy change, which would help other families in his situation. Several other families in similar situations have spoken to the media in recent weeks.

Across the country, visitation policies have sparked vigorous debates and lawsuits from patients’ families over their right to enter hospitals. In Connecticut, the Office of Civil Rights within Health and Social Services investigated a policy that kept the family of people with difficulties communicating from visiting patients in the hospital. The office eventually resolved the complaint with the state of Connecticut to allow visitation for those patients, but that was a state-issued policy, not one that was issued by the hospital itself.

In a separate case, the Office of Civil Rights resolved a case with a Maryland hospital that would allow priests to visit and pray for patients at the hospital.

Abbott said that while his daughter doesn’t have any diagnosed issue communicating, doctors told him that her emergency — a severe asthma attack followed by an anxiety attack — may have caused permanent brain damage.

He says he thinks being there would help her recover, and he’d at least be able to help with making medical decisions for his daughter, who has been unconscious since she was brought into the emergency room in Kodiak on Sept. 6.

“I don’t know what kind of decisions are being made in there,” he said.

Bernstein said he realizes that there are hard-to-measure mental health consequences to the policy, but he said COVID is unlike any other threat that the hospital has had to assess in recent history. He’s heard of hospitals in the state dealing with family members so determined to see loved ones that they lied about symptoms consistent with COVID-19 in order to get into the hospital.

“Because the risk can be so great with COVID — mortality potentially — we have to play safety as the highest priority, but we do recognize that there are emotional consequences,” he said.

Some, like Abbott, see it differently and will keep making their case for change. Reached Monday over the phone, Abbott said he’s staying until he gets into the hospital.

“I ain’t planning on going anywhere,” he said.

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