Psychiatric hospital a "haven" for spread of coronavirus, say employees

Psych hospitals face possible virus outbreaks
Psych hospitals face possible virus outbreaks... 03:36

The coronavirus, which has impacted nursing homes, is also hitting patients and staff at psychiatric facilities across the U.S.

There have been 34 confirmed cases (28 staff and 6 patients) at Western State Hospital, just outside Tacoma, Washington, which is one of the largest psychiatric hospitals west of the Mississippi.

The state's epidemiologist called the outbreak at Western State "serious" but also gave the hospital credit for taking early action that may slow infections.

It's one of nearly 2,000 inpatient psychiatric facilities in the U.S., and caring for this population comes with unique challenges during a pandemic.

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Employees at Western State Hospital, just outside Tacoma, Washington, worry the psychiatric facility isn't taking COVID-19 seriously. CBS News

"We are a hospital, too," said social worker Maria Claudio, who works at Western State. It is the state's largest psychiatric hospital with over 800 beds. According to the union, about 25 percent are elderly patients. "We are not a medical hospital, but these are patients, and just because they have a mental condition and some of them are violent, they're still human beings."

CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge asked, "Are there any special measures being taken to protect these patients on the high-risk wards?"

"No," Claudio replied. "Nothing."

CBS News spoke to more than a half dozen Western State employees who worry the hospital isn't taking COVID-19 seriously. They say administrators are floating staff between wards, potentially spreading the virus, and have abandoned temperature-screening workers.

When asked if she believe the hospital offers the virus a safe space to spread, Claudio replied, "Oh, it's a haven. I do believe that there's going to be a lot of deaths."

Staff told "CBS This Morning" social distancing isn't a viable option, because many patients require hands-on care.

One worker, who asked us to shield her identity for fear of retaliation for speaking out, told Herridge, "We are fighting a war, and we are not given any tools to protect anybody, let alone ourselves. So, it's like we're doing a suicide mission.

"I think we have it worse than a traditional hospital because our patients can at any given time become violent. You know, we have patients that don't understand or grasp of coughing into your arm or sneezing into your arm."

Nurse Sharon Bethard told CBS News the hospital only recently provided some protective equipment, after weeks of forbidding staff from bringing their own, according to internal hospital emails.

"At that time, nobody was allowed to wear masks," Bethard said. "If they see you wearing masks, they will tell you to take it off."

Maria Claudio's family bought a used RV, anticipating she will need to self-isolate away from them in the weeks ahead.

Like her coworkers, Claudio said she is committed to the patients who are among society's most isolated. "They rely on us for everything," she said. "They are locked in there. We have the keys. We have all the power. So, we have the responsibility to take care of them."

In response to staff claims, spokesperson Kelly Von Holtz emphasized to CBS News that Western State Hospital took early action to protect their high-risk population. 

"We understand the geriatric population is particularly vulnerable," Von Holtz said. "In fact, most of our patients meet several of the high-risk categories for COVID-19.  We have taken several precautions hospital-wide, even before we had our first case of COVID-19.  This includes increasing ward cleaning to every four hours, and increased cleaning on high-touch areas. We have been screening patients for symptoms every shift, and increasing awareness for the need to use good hand sanitization."

On staffing procedures, the spokesperson for the hospital said, "We began decreasing movement across wards on March 13, 2020 – that movement became more restrictive on April 4, 2020 after receiving recommendations from the Department of Health."

Addressing their previous policy that prohibited staff from wearing their own PPE, the hospital pointed to DOH guidance, saying, "Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health guidance has changed quite a bit. In the beginning, PPE from home was restricted based on those guidelines. We are evolving as the recommendations from our public health experts do. On March 31, 2020, notification was sent to all staff who work in our 24/7 facilities that they could bring masks from home and the facilities would continue to provide PPE, as appropriate and designated by our state's Department of Health for staff when caring for patients and residents who are on droplet precautions."

Asked about the DOH's change in guidance, the spokesperson pointed to a DOH document in mid-April that stated, "The Washington State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend that people wear cloth face coverings when they are in public settings where they cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from others."

An internal email reviewed by CBS News suggests Western State Hospital changed policy on staff wearing their own PPE less than an hour after AFSCME Council 28 (the union representing many of the staff there) said they would be instructing their members to wear their own masks despite hospital policy.

CBS News went back to the staff we interviewed, who said the changes don't come close to addressing their ongoing concerns.