OLYMPIA – As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases at Western State Hospital, the union representing workers there is demanding stronger protections for staff.
The calls by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW comes as Washington’s largest psychiatric facility continues to see an uptick in cases.
As of Thursday afternoon, six staffers and two patients there have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
The roughly 850-bed hospital located in Lakewood is a crucial — though often troubled — piece of the the state’s mental health system. The hospital has roughly 2,700 staff and contract workers, according to DSHS.
The hospital’s patients include those sent from the criminal court system to determine if they are competent to stand trial, and those who have been deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. Other beds are for patients who have been involuntarily committed through the civil courts because of psychiatric illnesses.
On Thursday, Sean Murphy, an assistant secretary with DSHS, said a sixth Western State staffer was diagnosed with COVID-19.
But, “Right now we haven’t seen a connection between the two patients we have” that were diagnosed and the infected staffers, he said.
At least one of the staffers diagnosed this week had not been at the facility during the illness’s incubation period and has since recovered from the virus, according to DSHS.
Murphy said diagnosed staff members go through “an in-depth interview process” to determine where they have been and with whom they’ve had contact.
DSHS in a news release Wednesday said it has notified hospital workers who have had close contact with diagnosed staffers. But it was unclear Thursday whether those employees were getting tested for COVID-19.
In a news release Thursday, SEIU called on Western State to dedicate a hospital ward specifically for patients with COVID-19 and a volunteer team to work that ward.
The union wants training for staffers on how to properly use medical protective equipment, as well as more of that equipment to be made available.
SEIU wants “immediate testing” for workers with COVID-19 symptoms, or who were exposed to or working near COVID-19 patients. And the union wants the hospital to hire a COVID-19 expert to help the hospital develop and put in place policies regarding the virus.
“We expect our employers to provide the protections and support we need to be able to work safely, and in public hospitals we expect state agencies to set a high standard for the health and safety of all of our employees,” SEIU said in its news release.
The union said it has been calling for weeks for DSHS, the state Department of Health and the Department of Children, Youth and Families to improve worker protections, but has gotten no commitments.
Murphy said Thursday the agency has been in regular contact with union officials. But, “Oftentimes, we can’t quite get to meet their needs,” he said. “It’s a demanding time.”
The hospital has contingency plans for grouping infected patients together, Murphy said, “But generally speaking, our first response would be to isolate the patient in their own room.”
Currently, Western State has “an adequate amount” of personal protective gear like masks, Murphy said. “We are definitely using them for the situations that warrant it, and not for the situations that don’t.”
But a registered nurse at the hospital said there was concern that staff aren’t getting enough protective gear, such as masks.
“My supervisor said the only time [masks would be given] is when a patient has COVID-19, and when I am going to a patient’s room,” said the nurse, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation.
“I don’t feel safe working there without being provided” such gear, the nurse added.