Md. hospital revises COVID-19 visitor policy after denying patient's request to see priest

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The University of Maryland Medical System has amended its COVID-19 visitor policy to allow clergy visitation after one of its hospitals denied access to a Catholic priest who was asked to administer sacraments to a trauma patient injured in a car accident. 

UMMS has revised its visitor policy to adhere to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' guidelines at all 13 hospitals in its medical system, including Prince George’s Hospital Center, which was at the center of a religious discrimination complaint due to its restrictive visitation policies in response to the coronavirus pandemic. CMS guidelines stipulate that hospitals “must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.”

The changes come after a complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. 

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Sidney and Susanna Marcus were admitted to Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System after a severe car accident in May. Sidney Marcus, who sustained life-threatening injuries, was moved to the intensive care unit as his conditions declined.

His wife, Susanna, requested that a priest provide the Catholic religious sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick for Sidney, the HHS said in a press release. The hospital denied the request, however, which prompted Susana Marcus to file a complaint.

“Despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment, the priest was turned away by the hospital based on a visitor exclusion policy it had adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the HHS said.

After the complaint, Sidney Marcus was allowed to have a priest visit him in the ICU.

“The Trump Administration has made it a priority to defend Americans’ right to practice their faith, at all times and especially during this pandemic,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “As our work with the University of Maryland Medical System shows, we can deliver healthcare, combat COVID-19, and protect religious freedom all at the same time.”

Other patients have also benefited Susanna Marcus' religious discrimination complaint that led the UMMS to amended its visitation policy.

Children at a UMMS hospital can now have two parents or guardians visit during hospital visiting hours, with one adult being allowed to stay overnight. Patients at the end of life can have up to two visitors at the same time, but only for one hour. And patients with disabilities or those being treated for COVID-19 can have two visitors during hospital visiting hours and one overnight visitor.

“Too many people have died alone during this crisis, but this resolution shows that hospitals can practice compassion and safety without sacrificing either,” said Roger Severino, director of OCR, in repose to UMMS' revised accommodations for patients.  

Though restrictions have been loosened at UMMS facilities, visitors must adhere to a list of guidelines, including the wearing of a facemask upon entering the hospital, and additional screening if exhibiting a fever or "flu-like symptoms."

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