Some Arizona hospital rules are changing due to rapid increase in flu – The Arizona Republic

The number of flu cases in Arizona is nearly 16 times higher than it was at this time last year, and some hospitals are taking action with earlier-than-usual visitor restrictions.
Phoenix-based Banner Health, which is Arizona’s largest health care system, announced this week that because of increased flu and other respiratory viruses in circulation, it would be implementing visitor restrictions at all its hospitals effective Monday.
Scottsdale-based HonorHealth implemented visitor restrictions on Monday, and officials with Phoenix-based Valleywise Health are weighing taking similar action.
“We’re evaluating that currently but we continue to ask visitors to wear a mask in the hospital,” Valleywise’s chief medical officer Dr. Michael White said. “I do anticipate we will accelerate our implementation of visitor restrictions, just given what we’re seeing in the community.”
Like Valleywise, Phoenix-based Abrazo Health has maintained masking requirements and its hospitals are now limiting visitation to only people 13 and older, chief medical officer Dr. William Ellert said in a written statement. The Abrazo visitor restrictions have been in place since Nov. 1.
In its latest report for the week ending Nov. 12, the Arizona Department of Health Services data shows that influenza in Arizona is “increasing rapidly” with 1,969 cases reported so far this season compared with 125 reported at this time last year.
The number of reported cases represents a small proportion of the true number of cases of influenza, state officials say, because not everyone with influenza-like symptoms is tested for the flu.
RSV cases are up significantly, too: more than twice as high as they were at this point last season, and are more than 11 times higher than a typical RSV season in Arizona, state data shows.
Officials with Phoenix Children’s Hospital say the emergency department is “very busy” and that many of the cases are RSV and other related respiratory viruses.
“Clinical teams at Phoenix Children’s have experience with a high patient census, and we have organizational plans in place to address the growing number of patients who require hospitalization,”  Dr. Michael Ritchey, chief medical officer at Phoenix Children’s, said in a written statement.
Ritchey added that for situations that are not life-threatening, Phoenix Children’s has four urgent care locations in the Valley that are open late on weeknights, weekends and holidays when typical primary care offices are closed. 
“These sites are also experiencing an increase in visits due to respiratory illnesses,” he said.
Phoenix Children’s has maintained the same visitor restrictions that were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those restrictions include mandatory masks for visitors while on the hospital campus except when eating, sleeping or in a room alone with a patient. Only two visitors may be in the hospital building and at a child’s bedside at a time and no siblings or additional visitors are allowed, the rules say.
The emergency department at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix is busier than usual primarily because of people with symptoms of respiratory illness, White said. The hospital is also continuing to see COVID-19 patients, including four in the ICU as of Tuesday.
“We’ve seen more COVID hospitalizations this week than we have in the past month,” White said Tuesday.
Banner Health’s hospital visitor restrictions include mandated face masks for anyone age 2 and older and restrictions on visitors under the age of 13. Anyone who has a fever, cough, vomiting or diarrhea is prohibited from going into Banner hospitals unless it’s to seek medical care.
Banner Health imposes visitor restrictions annually, but not typically until December or January, when flu season usually hits Arizona hardest. But this year is an early flu season.
RSV — respiratory syncytial virus — is also circulating at high levels in Arizona earlier than usual and is contributing to higher patient levels in hospitals, including in emergency rooms.
“We are experiencing an early and aggressive increase in respiratory virus cases related to RSV and influenza,” HonorHealth officials said in a written statement. “We continue to monitor the local activity as well as national and international respiratory virus trends.”
HonorHealth officials say that even though RSV and influenza are common viruses, they can cause a significant strain on the health care system.
“RSV significantly impacts children and older adults with weakened immunity and comorbidities,” the statement says. “We must all work together to reduce preventable infections by staying up-to-date on vaccinations and boosters, wearing a mask when appropriate, staying home when ill and frequently washing our hands.”
Banner Health officials are encouraging everyone over the age of six months to receive the flu vaccine to protect themselves and others from influenza. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for protection to set in.
State and federal health officials are also encouraging people over the age of 5 to receive an updated COVID-19 booster shot if it has been at least two months since their last COVID-19 vaccine dose, whether or not it was one of the original booster doses or the final dose of a primary two-dose series.
All COVID-19 booster shots now are the updated bivalent version, which is supposed to protect against waning immunity and the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant and to prevent COVID-19–associated hospitalization.
“This could be a particularly heavy season for respiratory viruses. Certainly if you haven’t been vaccinated for the flu or most recently for COVID, consider getting those,” White said. “And stay home if you are sick and talk to your health care provider.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that as of the week ending Nov. 5, the southeastern and south-central areas of the country are reporting the highest levels of activity followed by the Mid-Atlantic and the south-central West Coast regions. Five children have died of the flu so far this season, the CDC says.
Arizona often gets hit with waves of viruses later than other parts of the country, as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Nov. 10 flu activity in Arizona was lower than it was in California, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, per the CDC.
The Arizona Department of Health Services has a tool for finding vaccines here:
County health departments in Arizona have information about where to get vaccinated, as do pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, and the boosters are still available at no cost.
The Maricopa County Department of Public Health is offering free flu, COVID-19 and other vaccines at several community events.
To find an event, call 602-506-6767 or visit:
Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes.
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