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Rice implements further flu steps

WILLMAR -- Rice Memorial Hospital took extra steps in its emergency room Thursday to segregate patients in the waiting area who come in with influenza-like symptoms.

A curtain went up Thursday afternoon to divide the waiting area.

"We'll ask symptomatic patients with coughs and flu-like symptoms to stay on one side," said Kathy Hunt, director of critical care services. The ER also has begun restricting the number of people who can accompany the patient into the exam room. One visitor will be allowed, Hunt said.

Officials are encouraging other family members to stay home, a measure they hope will reduce congestion in the ER waiting area and limit other people's exposure to the influenza virus.

"We really need to tell the public, 'Don't bring your whole family to the hospital,'" Hunt said.

To further avoid the spread of germs, magazines and children's toys also have been removed from the waiting area.

These latest steps are on top of other measures Rice Hospital -- along with numerous other hospitals -- is already taking to curb the spread of influenza.

A few weeks ago the hospital began asking patients to don a mask if they come to the emergency room with flu-like symptoms. This week restrictions were imposed on people visiting patients who are hospitalized.

"It's for the sake of everyone trying to stay well while they're here," Hunt said.

The spread of illness is of particular concern in the ER waiting room. Last weekend, ER doctors and nurses saw 110 patients, of whom close to 40 percent were there with flu-like symptoms. On Sunday, 20 of the 56 patients who came to the ER reported they were having influenza-like symptoms, Hunt said.

"Our waiting room was quite overflowing," she said.

The new curtain should help keep patients separated, yet still allow staff to see the entire room, she said.

For ER patients, such as cancer patients, who are immune-compromised and at especially high risk of getting sick, space has been set aside in the department's grief room where these patients can wait.

The curtain might be only a temporary solution, Hunt acknowledged. "It probably is a work in progress," she said.

A dozen more chairs had to be brought in to ensure there are enough places for people to sit. The curtain also will be removed at least once a week -- and daily if necessary -- to be cleaned, Hunt said.

Hospital officials don't know if the H1N1 virus has peaked yet or if it'll continue to spread.

"I don't think this is going to go away," Hunt said.

One of the messages the ER is especially trying to get across: The emergency room is for treating sick people, not for testing for flu.

Emergency-room staff at Rice are seeing an increase in the number of people coming in and wanting to be screened for the H1N1 virus, Hunt said.

"They're worried about their symptoms. They want to know if it is or it isn't H1N1," she said.

But there's no commercially available test for the H1N1 virus, and testing is only done on people sick enough to be hospitalized. Results generally aren't known for at least a few days.

"That's hard. People want an answer," Hunt said.

What she and the ER staff want the public to know: "The emergency room doesn't do the screening. We just take care of sick people."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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