COVID-19 Outbreak At Maryland Psychiatric Hospital Highlights Employee Danger | WYPR

COVID-19 Outbreak At Maryland Psychiatric Hospital Highlights Employee Danger

Mar 31, 2020

Latex gloves hanging on a wall, ready for use.
Credit Andrew Harnick / Associated Press

As Gov. Larry Hogan’s press conference was getting underway Monday, Miriam Doyle, a clinical social worker at Clifton T. Perkins Psychiatric Hospital in Howard County for three years, was trying to listen for the updates she says her patients are desperate for.

She, her co-workers, and her patients had just learned about the outbreak in their hospital, where eight patients and a staff member had tested positive for Covid-19, and Doyle wanted to hear what the governor had to tell them. But her attention was diverted.

"One of my patients assaulted one of my colleagues, " she recounted. "People were coming in the door and I was shouting at security to put on gloves before they came into contact with my patients." 

She ran to a nearby station, grabbed a box of latex gloves, and urged the guards to put them on.

Eventually, things were under control. 

But as all this was going on, Doyle says, she was nervous to see employees from other units show up, though they were helpful.

Supervisors had told them to reduce foot traffic between units as much as possible to avoid spreading germs, but at the same time to offer help outside their units when it’s necessary. But that policy is inconsistent, says Doyle.

"I’m very concerned about going from one unit and being exposed to whatever might be there and then coming back to my unit," she said. She says she wants to "reduce movement in the hospital as much as possible."

But given the number of flare-ups that can happen in a psychiatric hospital, that's hard to do.

In an effort to reduce chances for the spread of the virus, hospital officials have closed shared spaces like the cafeteria, the gym, and the rec center. They’ve added an extra outdoor session. And Doyle and her colleagues are trying to come up with activities that help the patients but incorporate as much social distancing as possible...things like writing letters or cards, gardening, or walking meditations.

As for personal protective equipment, Doyle says they have latex gloves and a limited supply of masks. Hospital managers have asked the workers to use the same mask for a week.

Patients have received masks as well, though Doyle worried they will find it difficult to keep the masks intact for a week. 

In that press conference Doyle missed, Hogan acknowledged that Maryland doesn’t have what it needs to support workers in this pandemic. 

"We do not have enough gear. No one does," he said. "Which is the greatest tragedy of this crisis. It’s not a situation for this one mental health facility or this state. There are not enough PPE, masks, swabs, or ventilators anywhere in America."

Besides this outbreak, dozens of COVID cases have been reported at a nursing home in Carroll County, where two people so far have died, and one inmate and two contract employees at two Maryland prisons have tested positive.

Hogan said he's worried about thousands of facilities where employees "are in danger."

"That's the thing that everyone at the federal, state, and local level and all the hospital systems are focusing on like a laser beam." 

But Doyle, a member of ACFSME, the state’s largest union, is irritated that emergency pay was cancelled last week. 

Letter from Cynthia Kollner, Executive Director of the Office of Personnel Services and Benefits to Governor Larry Hogan
Credit Mary Rose Madden

In a letter dated March 21, 2020, Cynthia Kollner, Executive Director of the state's Office of Personnel Services and Benefits, wrote, "we are now confident that we have taken every reasonable and appropriate measure to protect employees and control the spread of this disease in our facilities."

But Doyle says she and her co-workers have only limited supplies of protective gear.

"[The compensation pay] has been suspended right around the time when it feels like this is ramping up into more and more of an emergency," she said.

Meanwhile, patients get their temperatures taken every day and Doyle takes hers twice a day, once at home and once at work.