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The state Department of Health has toughened up its message to hospitals that have been telling pregnant women they can’t bring a partner or other support person into the delivery room because of coronavirus concerns.

The new visitation policy’s boldface wording, issued late Friday, appears to leave little open to interpretation.

It “requires hospitals to allow one support person in labor and delivery settings if the patient so desires and two designated support persons in pediatric settings, provided that only one is present at a time.”

The DOH also says that support persons accompanying labor and delivery and pediatric patients “must be asymptomatic for COVID-19 and must not be a suspect or recently confirmed case. Additionally, hospital staff must screen the support person for symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., fever, cough, or shortness of breath), conduct a temperature check prior to entering the clinical area, and every 12 hours thereafter, and screen for potential exposures to individuals testing positive for COVID-19.”

On Saturday, Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said that the governor will sign an executive order to “reinforce” the Department of Health directive.

The update reverses visitor bans announced earlier this week by New York-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai Health System in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Other hospital systems had been expected to adopt similar procedures.

“I almost don’t believe it’s true, it’s amazing,” said Annie MacKinnon. She and her husband, who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are expecting their first child in May.

“I feel really relieved that they are reversing this, but I feel sad for all the women giving birth this week,” without their partners by their side, said MacKinnon.

A friend of hers had a cesarean section on Thursday while her husband watched on Skype, standing in the street for four hours, she said. “That’s just insane and she’s totally traumatized.”

Clarification, Not Change

Jill Montag, a DOH spokesperson, stressed that Friday’s revision is a clarification, not a change to existing state policy.

“The Department issued this in response to hospitals refusing to allow a support person in labor and delivery settings,” she said Friday evening.

On March 13, DOH ordered hospitals immediately to suspend all visitation except for medically necessary, essential to patient care or end-of-life situations. A March 21 revision added exceptions for obstetric and pediatric patients.

Friday’s update stresses that the state Department of Health views a support person for those patients as “essential for patient care.”

MacKinnon agreed with that view.

“The hospital’s justification was that they want to prevent as few people as possible who might be affected with COVID coming into their maternity ward,” MacKinnon said. “I understand that, but it felt like in order to achieve that, they were creating another risk for women that was equally as dangerous.”

She added: “Often the partners are the only set of eyes alert to a medical emergency because nurses and doctors are absolutely not in the room the whole time, it’s not possible. Staff is overstretched, nurses come and go and especially in this scenario where people are going to be even more overstretched in the environment of a pandemic.”

Professionals who help moms through labor and delivery also applauded the new health advisory.

“We know we have the state Health Department and the public on our side,” said Jesse Pournaras, a city-based doula who started a petition urging the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to require all hospitals to allow mothers-to-be to bring along a spouse or partner.

The petition, which had nearly 580,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon, notes New York State Department of Health guidelines “determined a support person … is essential to care for the patient during labor, delivery and in the postpartum period.”

The ban on visitors at the private hospital systems had caused a surge in requests for home births, midwives and doulas told THE CITY earlier this week.

Newborns at Risk

The city’s 11 public hospitals, as well as some others throughout the city, had continued to allow one support person in the delivery room.

“The decision made by our public hospitals is: Partners should be allowed for the process of labor and when a woman is giving birth,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Tuesday.

The private hospitals’ decision to ban delivery room visitors and limit those in neonatal intensive care units and maternity wards was made “to promote the safety of our new mothers and children,” according to the New York Presbyterian website.

The Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Washington Heights. Credit: Adam Hoglund/Shutterstock

Seven pregnant patients at Columbia University Medical Center, part of the New York-Presbyterian medical system, tested positive for coronavirus in recent weeks, according to a report in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published Thursday.

Two of those women had no symptoms when they arrived at the hospital, only to fall ill soon after giving birth, the report noted.

“While this policy might seem Draconian,” the report said of the no-visitor rule, “it should increase the protection of the mothers we care for, their infants, and the obstetric care team, by recognizing what series like this teach us: there is currently no easy way to clinically predict COVID-19 infection in asymptomatic people.”

‘Super, Super Strict’

Late Saturday, New York-Presbyterian indicated it will follow the state’s directive. “We will comply with the Executive Order regarding visitors for obstetric patients, effective immediately,” the hospital said in a statement. “Our highest priority continues to be the safety and wellbeing of our patients, their families, and our staff.”

Mount Sinai acknowledged the new guidance Saturday morning without committing to follow it but did so later in the day.

“In partnership with New York State, effective today, we will permit one healthy partner to join the expectant mother for labor and delivery,” said spokesperson Renatt Brodsky. “We have always — and will always — make these difficult decisions with the best of intentions and safety of the mother, baby and our staff as our guiding principle.”

Some parents say they understood a need for a ban on partners.

“At first, I cried and thought it was so unfair to allow only one of us to see them, especially for parents of multiples,” said a mom of preemies born two months early at New York-Presbyterian who did not want to be identified.

“Honestly, though, in some ways it took away some of the guilt. I am terrified that somebody — even me — might make my babies sick. I am scrubbing the car with Lysol wipes, and washing my hands 80,000 times a day, but you don’t really know how careful other people are. It was hard enough dealing with everything before it hit the fan with a pandemic.”

Her babies spent five and a half weeks in New York-Presbyterian Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before they were finally able to be moved to another NICU nearer the family home Friday. That hospital allows two visitors per family, but only one at a time.

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