Meritus allows COVID patients to have family visitors

COVID-19 patients are allowed to have family members visit them while in Meritus Medical Center, according to a Thursday news release from Meritus Health.

Throughout the pandemic, visitor access has been limited or restricted, at times forcing nurses and staff to get creative to support patients and their families. They've used virtual calls, phone calls or looking through windows so loved ones could see each other.

“Keeping families outside of hospital rooms has been one of the most tragic circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, although a necessary one to keep everyone as safe from the virus as possible,” Melanie Heuston, chief nursing and patient care services officer for Meritus Health, said in the news release.

The health system decided to relax its visitation rules after looking at the local COVID statistics, said Meritus Health President and CEO Maulik Joshi. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently expanded vaccinations to include booster shots for certain groups, as well as doses for children ages 5 to 11.

“We are a patient and family centered organization and while it has pained us deeply to have these (visitation) restrictions in place, it was for everyone’s safety," Joshi said in a follow-up email. "With increasing vaccinations and COVID-19 hospitalizations dropping slightly, we wanted to do this for our patients and their loved ones. We all need to continue to be cautious, though, as there is still a high COVID-19 positivity rate in our region.”

As of noon Thursday, Washington County had recorded 20,365 positive cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to county statistics listed online. During that time, 411 people died from complications tied to the disease. The county's positivity rate was 9.89% as of Wednesday.

Just over half — 50.9% — of the county's entire population has been fully vaccinated.

At Meritus Medical Center east of Hagerstown, 18 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to the hospital data. Of those, 16 were unvaccinated, and 15 of them were in the intensive care unit. Two of the COVID patients were on ventilators; both were unvaccinated.

Meritus staff started contacting family and loved ones earlier in the week about the chance to again visit those with potential or confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. However, there are still some restrictions.

All visits must be coordinated with the patient's nurse ahead of time.

Those visiting COVID-19 positive patients must sign a waiver stating they understand the risks of visitation. They also must wear personal protective equipment provided by the hospital. Staff will ensure the visitors are properly wearing the equipment.

Visiting hours for potential and diagnosed COVID-19 patients are between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily, but only one visitor is permitted per day for the patient.

“… Being able to offer these reunions when beneficial to the patient is a huge step forward for all of us living through this,” Heuston said.

To be sure care is not disrupted and healing is not disturbed, visitors must follow all staff directions while at Meritus Medical Center, including proper use of PPE, not visiting other areas of the hospital, not eating or drinking in patients' rooms and not leaving without guidance from the bedside staff, the release states.

“The decision to allow visitors into the unit and the length of time they stay completely depends on the condition and needs of the patient,” Heather Mathews, clinical manager of critical care for Meritus Health, said in the release. “We believe time with loved ones is so important to a patient’s healing and experience here at our hospital.

"This is about meeting the care needs of our patients first while working to safely accommodate family members who are missing them dearly.”

This article was first published in The Herald-Mail and online at in November 2021.