Patient, worker at state psychiatric hospital have COVID-19

Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Wash.
Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Wash.

SEATTLE (AP) — A patient and a worker at Washington state’s largest psychiatric hospital have tested positive for coronavirus, and workers at the facility fear the number of cases will increase due to a lack of protective gear and new policies that force them to crowd together as they try to get into the building.

The Western State Hospital patient was at a Pierce County hospital for surgery last week and developed a fever, according to officials. The patient still had a fever when returned to the psychiatric hospital on Sunday, so he went back to the medical center and tested positive for COVID-19, according to Kelly Von Holtz, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The employee last worked March 8 and has not been at the facility since, so health officials don’t think other hospital staff were impacted. The worker has since recovered and is symptom-free, Holtz said Thursday.

The patient and employee are among more than 1,300 people who have tested positive for the disease in Washington state, which leads the country in fatalities. About half of the 74 deaths were associated with a long-term care facility in Kirkland.

The 850-bed Lakewood facility has been the target of state and federal investigations for safety violations in recent years. It lost its accreditation and federal funding from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services after it continually failed health and safety inspections.

Sean Murphy, Behavioral Health Assistant Secretary, told The Associated Press Thursday that they’ve taken steps to protect the hospital’s 2,500 staff members and 770 patients against a spread of the highly contagious disease.

Staff have been ordered to self-screen for coughs or fevers and stay home if they’re sick, Murphy said. They screening patients daily and have prohibited patients from leaving hospital grounds unless it’s for a medical appointment, he said.

No visitors are allowed inside.

Officials placed new locks on the doors into the hospital so all staff must enter through one door. They’ve erected tents near the entry ways that will be used to screen each staff member before going into the building, Murphy said. Staff will need to fill out a form about their health and they’ll have their temperature taken, he said.

That process is expected to begin Friday, he said. But workers are highly critical of the plan.

Locking doors into the large brick building forces workers to walk long distances to get inside, Nursing Supervisor Paul Vilja told the AP. Workers with disabilities don’t have enough parking spaces near the front entrance and forced to walk long distances from handicap parking, sometimes on streets that are not lighted or don’t have sidewalks, he said.

A bigger concern during this COVID-19 pandemic is the more than 100 employees who arrive at work at the same time are forced to congregate at one or two entry points on the sprawling campus, he said.

“Everybody’s trying to get to work on time and they have to stand in line in the cold, making social distancing impossible,” he said. It will be worse when the screening tents are operating because groups of workers will be filling out forms and getting their temperatures taken inside the tent, he said.

The hospital received a supply of thermometers for the testing, but were warned that they don’t work accurately when used in the cold, he said.

“The screening will be worthless,” he said. “There’ll be false negatives because of the cold temperatures outside.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus

The nursing staff was told that they must run the tent tests, but they have not received the personal protection equipment to keep screeners safe, and have not been trained for the job, Vilja said.

“We’re out of surgical masks on many wards and don’t have any of the N-95 masks, and we’re almost out of sanitary wipes,” he said.

Murphy said the hospital has the personal protection equipment needed and they’re following the protocol outlined by health officials, but they’re also being conservative.

“People want to use more PPE than is required,” he said. “There are complications with using too much PPE.”

Maria Claudio, a social worker at Western State, said she’s worried about worker safety, but also fears for the older patients and those who are taking psychotropic medications that compromise immune systems.

One staff member who was in physical contact with the patient who tested positive for COVID-19 was sent home, but not the rest of the staff, she said.

“There’s no protocols, no accountability, no plan,” Claudio said. “It’s haphazard and reckless. It’s causing a lot of anxiety.”

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