5 workers, 2 patients at psychiatric hospital have COVID-19

SEATTLE -- Five workers and two patients at Washington state’s largest psychiatric hospital have tested positive for the new coronavirus, officials said Wednesday.

In the last week, state health officials said that one Western State Hospital employee and two patients were positive for COVID-19, but on Wednesday, officials reported four more employees had the disease. Workers fear it will get worse due to conditions at the sprawling facility and the administration’s policies.

“I’ve been talking to workers at WSH about the situation there, and I’m afraid this could become another tragedy similar to what happened at Life Care Center of Kirkland,” said Justin Lee, a spokesman for the union that represents hospital employees, referring to the nursing home linked to 37 people COVID-19 deaths.

Like the Life Care Center, the psychiatric hospital is home to a vulnerable population that lives in close quarters; staff don’t have personal protective equipment like face masks; the administration was late to screen workers; and workers who were exposed to the disease are not being tested, Lee said.

“Staff continue to report to work because they care deeply about the patients, but they are also greatly concerned about management’s failure to be proactive with public health guidance,” Lee said.

Sean Murphy, Behavioral Health Assistant Secretary, told The Associated Press Wednesday that he has heard the worker’s concerns and they’ve continued to try to improve the situation at the facility.

In Washington state, 132 people have died from coronavirus. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Last week, the Department of Social and Health Services announced that two patients and one Western State staff member tested positive for the virus. The employee had not worked during the incubation period, they said.

One patient and the employee have both recovered, said DSHS spokesperson Kelly Von Holtz. The other patient remains in a Pierce County hospital. Anyone who visited the hospital between March 19 and 21 should monitor for symptoms, she said.

The hospital started screening workers on Friday. They closed most entrances to the buildings so workers file though a screening area in three entrances before starting their sifts. Tents were set up outside the doors to protect workers in inclement weather. Workers must report their physical condition and have their temperatures taken.

The hospital follows protocols for infectious diseases and has restricted patient and staff movement between wards, Von Holtz said.

But workers say the protocols fail to protect workers and patients.

One nurse found out from watching the news that she was exposed to COVID-10, Lee said. She had treated the first patient who tested positive.

“Thankfully, she went against management suggestions that she should return to work,” Lee said. “Some staff who have become ill after exposure to COVID-19 have been asked to return to work within 72 hours. Again, thankfully the worker I spoke to refused.”

Patients are sneezing and coughing throughout the wards, but staff are not provided the protective gear they need, Lee said.

Murphy with DSHS said protective gear is not necessary in all cases, and the hospital is following guidelines set out by the health department.

“We have some staff who want to wear gloves, masks, a full gown all the time,” Murphy said. “We are working to conserve PPE for the times it’s appropriate.”

Rosalyn Lee, a nursing supervisor, said hospital officials have been inconsistent in their rules. One day masks are required and the next, they’re prohibited, she said. The most recent directive said workers should wear a mask if they work on a ward where patient tested positive for COVID-19. She said that was a step forward.

“It’s kind of chaos,” she said. ’You’re out there on the front lines of the crisis and you expect to have the tools you need, including directives.”

The hospital screening process forces workers to congregate at the limited entrances, making social distancing difficult, said Nursing Supervisor Paul Vilja. The nurses who have been told to conduct the screenings are not provided protective gear and have not been trained on how to conduct a proper screening, he said.

Lee, the nursing supervisor, said the screeners used are infrared and are affected by the cold. Since the staff have their temperatures as they step inside, they’re getting low readings.

“Most were 91, 92,” Lee said. “Nobody’s temperature was above 97. It’s kind of useless.”

The Lakewood facility has been the target of state and federal investigations for safety violations in recent years.