State hospital employees call for COVID-19 emergency plan in petition to administrators

Rose Blan

The Oregon State Hospital didn’t have a patient test positive for coronavirus until eight months into the pandemic. But some staff members are concerned that administrators still don’t have a plan, nor enough staff, to handle a COVID-19 outbreak at the psychiatric facility. Union leaders from the state hospital sent […]

The Oregon State Hospital didn’t have a patient test positive for coronavirus until eight months into the pandemic. But some staff members are concerned that administrators still don’t have a plan, nor enough staff, to handle a COVID-19 outbreak at the psychiatric facility.

Union leaders from the state hospital sent out a petition to staff earlier this week, asking them to hold hospital administrators accountable and come up with a plan they say is long overdue.

The petition makes three demands of administrators: set up immediate meetings with union representatives to make a plan for a COVID-19 outbreak, hire limited-duration staff to back up current employees and provide more transparency about the hospital’s response to the pandemic.

Kimberly Thoma, the union president and an administrative specialist who worked as a mental health therapist for many years, said employees have been stretched thin for a while — but a widespread outbreak could cut even deeper into the hospital’s ability to care for patients. Facing such uncertainty, employees want administrators to articulate a clear plan for how the hospital will address a widespread outbreak and keep patients and employees safe, particularly if many workers have to quarantine.

“We don’t know how many people are going to get sick,” Thoma said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have that backup.”

In an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday, state hospital superintendent Dolly Matteucci said administrators were aware of the petition, and said she understood employees’ desire to have a singular worst-case scenario staffing plan for the pandemic. Matteuci said the hospital’s coronavirus response has evolved as the hospital’s staffing needs have changed during the pandemic.

“Since March, we have been collaborating with staff to develop and implement a staffing plan that meets the unique needs as presented by the pandemic in a psychiatric hospital environment,” Matteucci said.

But many union-represented employees say they remain in the dark about the concrete steps the hospital will take if an outbreak sweeps through the psychiatric facility.

Ben Morris, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 503, the union that represents many state workers, including hospital employees, said 28 hospital employees had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon. Morris said he expects that number to grow as the petition circulates.

“We’ve been asking for a worst-case scenario plan since March,” Morris said. “It’s been almost nine months and we still haven’t seen a plan. Given the paper-thin staffing at the hospital, we’re deeply concerned.”

“They simply don’t have the people on hand to handle a significant COVID outbreak,” Morris said.

The state hospital, which has campuses in Salem and Junction City, can serve about 650 patients, including those who have been civilly committed, found guilty except for reason of insanity or found unable to aid and assist in their criminal defense. According to state hospital spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King, it has about 2,300 employees across both facilities, including 1,900 at the Salem campus.

The petition is addressed to Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen, Chief of Medicine Dr. Kristi Hennan and Deputy Chief Nursing Officer Aisha Krebs.

On Friday evening, Matteucci said the hospital’s coronavirus planning began shortly after the virus came to Oregon. The state hospital created three protected units for high-risk patients, as well as quarantine units and admissions monitoring units where new patients quarantine for 14 days before being placed with the general population.

Matteucci also touted the hospital’s nearly eight-month stretch without a patient testing positive.

“There have been some bumps in the road since March, and it’s through this strong collaboration between hospital leaders and staff that we were able to overcome them,” she said.

The state hospital announced its first COVID-positive patient on Oct. 15, and announced four days later that two more patients who live in the same unit had tested positive. All three positive cases have been traced to six employees from that unit who have since tested positive.

On Tuesday, Gipson-King said two of the patients who tested positive were asymptomatic, and the third was recovering. All three, along with 16 others who live in the same unit, are in quarantine.

The hospital did initially slow its admissions process in response to the pandemic, but resumed admissions amid criticism that people were left waiting in jails. After its first positive patient test, resumed temporary limits on certain types of admissions.

Administrators also said the hospital would be testing all patients and staff in the unit linked to the cluster of cases. A few days later it announced that it would be testing all employees — something it had not done since the pandemic began. Since the pandemic began, 29 staff members have tested positive. Until this week, they had to be tested through their own healthcare providers.

Matteucci said there was no prior mass testing because previous cases of employees testing positive were isolated.

She said the state hospital has already implemented plans that touch on some of the demands in the recent employee petition.

Employees asked for administrators to hire limited-duration staff members to ease the strain on current workers.

Matteucci said the state hospital is already using limited-duration positions and contracting with nurse agencies to provide additional staffing.

She said administrators are also working with the Oregon Health Authority and other state agencies to figure out whether there are other options available to hire more temporary staff. She said they would let workers know when they have come up with a plan.

Regarding employees’ request for transparency, Matteucci said hospital administrators have done their best to keep staff members informed through daily or twice-daily updates, labor-management meetings and all-staff messages.

“These updates have included the latest testing numbers as well as contact tracing information, including numbers for staff to call if they are concerned about exposure to the virus,” she said.

Matteucci said administrators have also been meeting with staff and union leaders since the pandemic began in March.

Thoma said staff members are not concerned with a lack of communication from administrators, but the lack of a concrete plan.

She said staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have made it more difficult for existing staff to do their jobs. She noted that the number of employees the hospital can hire is set during two-year budget cycles by the state legislature.

“It feels like (mental health treatment) goes on the back burner,” Thoma said. “But they still have therapy and things that they need, too.”

Thoma credited hospital officials with taking some measurable steps with the resources that are available, such as offering various types of masks to employees.

“My point is not to point the finger at management and say, ‘This is your fault,’” she said. “But our staffing is restricted. What are we going to do when there’s no one there? When there’s no one else to pull from?”

Thoma said the strain of the pandemic has been especially difficult for employees who must work on the hospital floor and can’t telecommute. Some workers are afraid to expose their parents or grandparents, she said. Others struggle to find child care because places that used to have extended hours for state workers no longer can offer those hours.”

“I’ve seen the way this system has treated our mentally ill over the years, and it’s really frustrating,” she said. “We do this job because we care, and we want to keep our patients safe.”

—Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; [email protected]; @JRamakrishnanOR

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