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Managing Risk and Living Life

Blanket restrictions on the visitation of the sick and dying by family and friends inflict harm as real and debilitating as viral infection.
February 17th, 2022

By Jim Towey

Recently I was in a church in Naples, Florida on a bright Sunday morning.  The parish consists of mostly-wealthy retirees.  The sanctuary was packed, and judging from my scan of the congregation, I would say the majority of attendees were 75 years of age or older.  This demographic – the most at-risk of hospitalization or death from or with Covid – might be expected to embrace the social-distancing and masking norms propounded by the Centers for Disease Control and other health experts.  But aside from a few dozen exceptions among the approximately one thousand present, they didn’t.

My guess is they all were vaccinated and boosted.  They had made it through two years of the pandemic and seen friends succumb to the coronavirus and others barely survive it.  Perhaps many of them, too, had acquired natural immunity after a bout with the illness.  Regardless, they knew the dangers of viral transmission and I am sure they were taking reasonable precautions, just as they had in flu seasons past.

Living life

However, they weren’t going to let fear of death lead to fear of living.  They came to church to worship God, to be together, to live their lives.  They chose not to allow the presence and prevention of illness, and the irrational fears that surround an unhealthy, unbalanced concentration on germs, to govern them.

What I saw in Naples that Sunday was not simply a “Florida thing.”  One of the benefits of a long life is the development of wisdom.  Senior citizens know they are the population most at risk of death, even in non-pandemic times.  They are able to assess the risks and benefits of communal worship and decide, and they did. 

We need each other

The 17th century poet John Donne’s reminder that no man or woman is an island, speaks of loss and the tolling bell, and also, the connected whole. The passing of the hundreds of thousands of Americans, and millions throughout the world, diminished us, but in a strange way, strengthened us as well.  We have greater clarity on what matters most during our sojourn on earth.  We need one another’s company.

That brings up the issue of ensuring that no one is left to be unaccompanied during times of illness and vulnerability.  Hospitals and nursing homes are committed to ensuring the health and safety of their patients and staff.  That means limiting facility-borne pathogens and viruses, but also, supporting the mental and emotional well-being of those in their care.  Blanket restrictions on the visitation of the sick and dying by family and friends inflict harm as real and debilitating as viral infection.  A person very close to me who learned recently that his cancer had recurred with a vengeance and faced emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor was told he could have no visitors.  He badly wanted his wife and children to be by his bedside but instead was isolated for days.  Another close friend just underwent a delicate, serious heart procedure.  Her husband was allowed to visit her each day.  His company soothed and sustained her.

Striking the right balance

Visitation restrictions have prompted workarounds.  Perhaps you heard the story of Mary Daniel, the wife who took a job as a dishwasher in her husband’s nursing home so she could visit him.  Florida’s No Patient Left Alone Act seems likely to become law.    It seems strange that two eminent hospitals, both staffed by highly-trained and compassionate professionals, could reach different conclusions on the safety risks posed by outside visitors.  Is the reason these prohibitions are still in place more about fear of the legal exposure or extra work that comes with admitting and monitoring visitors?  If the vaxxed and unvaxxed alike can carry Covid, and all health professionals were first in line for their shots, it seems to me the beautifully humane benefits of visitation now outweigh those downsides.  Arrangements can be made to accommodate individuals who want contact with the outside world without harming those who do not.

I understood the sweeping precautions society took – lockdowns, quarantines, mask and social distancing mandates, and such – when vaccines didn’t exist and little was known about the mortality and hospitalization rates associated with Covid.  That data is finally driving change.  New York, D.C., Michigan and other jurisdictions have lifted Covid restrictions, and hopefully hospitals and care facilities for the elderly and disabled will follow suit.  We face a “learning moment” and lessons can be derived from our country’s experience as well as from beyond our borders.  Lesson number one is that visitation prohibitions exact a toll and can no longer be justified.


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