Covid outbreak at psychiatric hospital as staffers allege unsafe conditions

Mar 20, 2021

This article was updated on March 22 to include comments from a spokesperson at Southcoast Behavioral Health.

Staff at Southcoast Behavioral Health on Faunce Corner Road are alleging unsafe conditions at the psychiatric facility after more than a dozen patients tested positive for Covid-19 this week.

A spokesperson for the facility has refuted allegations that non-Covid and Covid patients are mingling and that safety precautions are only loosely enforced.

According to state data, 15 patients have the viral illness as of March 16 — and according to employees, they are not being kept isolated.

Southcoast Behavioral Health is a 144-bed psychiatric hospital run in a partnership between the not-for-profit Southcoast Health and 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 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,” Auty wrote.

Three different staff members estimated that at least four of the hospital’s six units have patients with Covid, alleging they are mixed in units with Covid-negative patients.

All three Southcoast Behavioral employees wished to remain anonymous, although Dartmouth Week confirmed that they do work at the facility.

“It’s gotten so out of hand,” said one staff member. “It’s spreading like wildfire in there.”

“It’s not safe for the patients, it’s not safe for the staff,” the worker added.

“One girl was walking around without a mask — in the gym, in the cafeteria, in the hallways — she was positive,” said another employee. “As were a lot of patients, without us knowing.”

But according to Auty, Covid-positive patients are isolated from others and treated in designated areas, and staff are made aware at the start of their shifts if a patient is sick.

“We follow all quarantine guidelines from the CDC and restrict all access for Covid-positive patients to any other areas of the hospital,” Auty noted.

A third employee said that due to staffing issues, there aren’t enough workers to safely monitor patients.

“We’re working on units with unsafe ratios,” the person said, adding that there were shifts with just two staffers for a unit of 24 patients, when normally there are four or five per unit.

Auty commented that the healthcare facility is “very proud of the fact that we have maintained staffing ratios that meet our standards of quality care and all regulatory requirements.”

Two workers said that thus far, the geriatric unit appears to be Covid free.

But the staffers also described allegedly lax enforcement of policies like mask wearing and temperature checks, which they said could take place three hours into a shift or not at all, along with poor sanitizing practices.

Our staff are required to wear masks at all times and receive fever checks before the start of every shift. Patients are strongly encouraged to wear masks,” Auty wrote. “We encourage distancing throughout the facility.”

She added that each patient’s bedroom and all common areas are cleaned thoroughly each day, and housekeeping staff cleans the entire building each night. 

Last April, the facility had a number of patients test positive for Covid.

“As always, the safety, health and well-being of our patients and employees are our top priorities,” hospital CEO Felicia Risick stated during the previous outbreak. 

As healthcare workers, staffers at the facility are eligible for the Covid vaccine and confirmed that they have been offered it — although some employees at the facility have chosen not to get the jab.

Auty stated that the facility is committed to providing its staff with full access to the vaccine.

It is unclear how many staffers or patients have been vaccinated thus far, and what testing protocols are in place, if any.

Although the workers said they are worried about carrying the virus to their friends and family, they added that the patients are most at risk.

We at the end of the day get to go home,” said one staff member. “Those patients don’t.”