Cases nearly double at psychiatric facility as Covid outbreak worsens

Mar 25, 2021

Covid-19 cases at Southcoast Behavioral Health on Faunce Corner Road jumped 80% in the past week as an outbreak at the psychiatric facility continues, with staffers alleging unsafe conditions — including loosely enforced safety precautions.

According to state data, the number of cases skyrocketed to 27 as of March 23, up from 15 the previous week.

The facility is easily the worst-hit among all congregate care psychiatric facilities licensed by the Department of Mental Health in Massachusetts, with all others reporting either zero or up to five cases.

Southcoast Behavioral Health is a 144-bed psychiatric hospital run in a partnership between the not-for-profit Southcoast Health and Tennessee-based specialty behavioral care provider Acadia Healthcare, which manages the facility’s day-to-day operations.

Katlyn Auty, Director of Business Development at Southcoast Behavioral, noted in a written statement that the facility is one of 11 contracted by the state to treat Covid-positive patients.

“We strictly follow all health and safety requirements and Centers for Disease Control recommendations for the management of Covid,” she wrote, adding that patients who test positive are isolated and treated in designated areas, with dedicated staff for Covid-positive units.

However, three different staff members at the psychiatric hospital have alleged anonymously that Covid-positive patients are mixed in units with Covid-negative patients, and that staffers are sent to non-Covid units after working in Covid units.

They also alleged that not enough protective equipment is provided and that cleaning and sanitizing protocols are insufficient, among other allegations.

“It’s not safe for the patients, it’s not safe for the staff,” one worker said, stating that the viral illness is “spreading like wildfire in there.”

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have followed strict safety, hygiene and cleaning protocols as dictated by the CDC and World Health Organization for this virus,” Auty stated.

Employees alleged that cleaning at the facility is inadequate.

There’s no cleaning company coming in to sterilize the place,” said one staffer last week. “They have housekeeping — they empty the trash. And the techs wipe down counters with antibacterial wipes.”

Patients are complaining how dirty it is,” another staffer noted. “They don’t clean. There’s supposed to be staff in there cleaning every day — they take out the trash and leave.”

Auty refuted the allegations, noting that “each patient bedroom and all our common areas are cleaned thoroughly throughout the day by staff and the entire building (including those same areas) each night by our cleaning staff.”

Workers also noted more general issues with operations at the facility, alleging that a staff member was recently found asleep on a one-to-one shift — a suicide or homicide watch.

During “one-to-ones” a patient is kept under careful observation by one staff member due to a risk of harm to themselves or others.

But instead, employees alleged, staffers are on their phones or even sleeping.

“On one to ones, staffers are sleeping,” said one worker. “The [staff]person is meant to follow [the patient] at all times — most of the times it’s because the person is suicidal or their behavior is so out of control they’re going to assault somebody.”

“It’s just a big friggin’ mess in there,” the staffer added.

Southcoast Behavioral has not yet responded to the allegation that a staff member was found sleeping on a one-to-one.

Marion Hamilton, parent of a former patient at Southcoast Behavioral, stated concerns with the facility’s treatment of her son, who spent 12 days there before the family pulled him out early.

“He [did] nothing except eat, take meds and sleep,” she stated. “No treatment. No family meetings. No visits. No virtual connections. No MD a matter of fact, the psychiatrist hung up on me.”

Hamilton said that she only spoke to her son on the phone three times during his stay, despite calling 4-5 times per day.

She said that her son was not allowed virtual visits and was denied a socially distanced outside visit from his father, which he had requested just so that he could see his son was all right.

Auty noted that Southcoast Behavioral’s visitation policies are governed by a Covid-19 emergency directive from the Department of Mental Health banning visitors.

The directive requires each inpatient psychiatric facility to “use its best efforts” to give patients access to telephone or videoconferencing technology for visitation.

But Hamilton is still unhappy with the care her son received.

“It’s just about the worst place I’ve ever encountered,” she said. “I’m so appalled I just can’t even get over it.”

“Adult psychiatric care in this state is despicable,” Hamilton added. “Nobody should lay in an emergency room for days and nights...waiting for a bed to open up. And when one does, the treatment is worse than the waiting.”