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Guest Commentary: COVID reality, no one wants to die alone

by Jess Davis

We have all experienced losses from the pandemic, whether it be a financial, occupational, or relational loss. Perhaps no one has felt a greater loss in this pandemic than those who have lost loved ones to the virus. They might have experienced firsthand how healthcare organizations are limiting the number of visitors for patients, including end-of-life patients.

These limits are harmful to our health, and I don’t mean our physical health. The very restrictions in healthcare organizations that are meant to keep us safe are also turning our worst fears into a reality. Nobody wants to die alone.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, visitation restrictions have been implemented in healthcare organizations, especially for patients who have tested positive for the virus. The purpose of these restrictions is to prevent the virus from spreading. Healthcare organizations do not want their COVID positive patients to infect anyone else. It makes sense to have these restrictions in place, right? After all, it seems as if it is for everyone’s protection.

These restrictions may not seem as acceptable, however, when they are applied to end-of-life COVID positive patients. Most healthcare organizations have a "two-visitor" limit for end-of-life COVID positive patients, including Penn Medicine and Tower Health. These visitors are only allowed when death is imminent.

While this is a step up from the "no-visitor" policy that took place last year, two visitors are still not enough.

The fears of death and dying alone have been present long before COVID. The pandemic has only heightened these fears and have made them a reality for too many people.

No one should have to die without being surrounded by their loved ones, and not just two loved ones either. What if a mother is the end-of-life patient, and she has more than two children – shouldn’t they all be allowed to be there to hold her hand? If you were in the shoes of the either the patient or a loved one, would two visitors be enough for you?

While it is true that this "two-visitor" policy is helping keep citizens physically healthy by preventing the spread of the virus, it fails to take into account the emotional and mental health of both the patients and their loved ones.

Isolation and separation can be harmful.

In fact, it is known that flexible visiting hours have the potential to reduce delirium and anxiety symptoms among patients. Patients will feel more comfortable when surrounded by loved ones, which can make for a more peaceful transition for end-of-life patients. The "two-visitor" policy also limits the ability for loved ones to "say goodbye".

A lack of a proper "goodbye" can negatively impact the emotional and mental health of those who lost their loved one, possibly even heightening their grief and mourning.

These are some reasons why there needs to be a greater number of visitors allowed for end-of-life COVID positive patients. In areas other than end-of-life, the visitation restrictions seem appropriate. While the restrictions may still be hard to follow and are not ideal, we can understand why they are in place: to minimize the spread of COVID.

Even though the intention behind the restrictions for end-of-life patients is the same, there needs to be an exception. The right visitation policy in end-of-life situations should not be the same as the policy in all other situations.

Unfortunately, some visitation restrictions are still necessary for end-of-life patients so there is not an abundant amount of people being exposed to the virus. A possible solution, though, is to add onto the "two-visitor" policy. As long as everyone is vigilant and takes the necessary precautions to ensure safety, then it would be okay to allow for additional visitors.

A possible policy should be for health organizations to allow the patient’s nuclear family (children and spouse) to be present. If the patient does not have a nuclear family, then his/her parents and siblings should be allowed to be present. Finally, if the patient does not have a nuclear family or parents and siblings, then he/she should be allowed to have two visitors present.

These new guidelines would allow for a greater number loved ones to be present while still being aware of exposure to the virus. Nobody wants to die without being surrounded by their loved ones, and nobody should have to.

Jess Davis is a junior at Messiah University studying accounting. When she is not in class or playing field hockey, she likes to play the piano and watch movies.

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