From public demonstrations in front of the facility to angry letters to state officials pleading for action to ever-pervasive whispers detailing troubling health and safety conditions for employees, all appearances point to a Chattahoochee populace growing increasingly incensed by Florida State Hospital’s handling of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
While there are myriad facets to the evolving saga, of chief public concern at present is ensuring the safety and welfare of Florida State Hospital employees – allegedly subjected to frighteningly dangerous working conditions, purportedly as a result of, at least in part, hospital leadership’s negligence and/or incompetence in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak; not to mention the danger COVID-19 cases among employees – many, if not most, of whom work within a 30-mile radius of the Chattahoochee campus, according to census data from 2010 – poses to the Chattahoochee community that hosts the sprawling mental healthcare campus. One Florida State Hospital employee – who spoke only on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job – likened the perceived hazards at Florida State Hospital to a “war zone,” going on to say she “dreads” her commute to work. These days, she continued, carrying out routine tasks at the state hospital feels akin to “patrolling for IEDs [improvised explosive devices, i.e. crudely constructed bombs notoriously used by enemy combatants against U.S./Coalition forces in Middle East conflict zones]” in an unarmored family sedan.
The Florida State Hospital employee (employment verified via official documents) who offered the aforementioned simile is apparently not alone in her job security anxieties. Of nearly a dozen state hospital employees polled, only three agreed to speak on the record – albeit with vocal hesitancy and on the condition of total anonymity; the remaining pollees quickly dismissed any possibility of speaking to the media. Purported fear of job loss and/or professional backlash among frontline healthcare workers in particular has made eyewitness accounts and other information from primary sources regarding conditions on campus difficult to come by. Add to this pervasive, often evolving COVID-19 rumors still circulating through town; conflicting figures and reports on coronavirus testing coming from different official sources; and the Department of Children and Families’ – which oversees operations at the Chattahoochee facility – apparent silence of late in response to queries concerning public allegations…and discerning fact from fiction in the real-life drama is no simple endeavour, to be sure. With only a few unverified eyewitness accounts, along with vague statements prepared by public relations personnel and a whole lot of public rumor and hearsay to go on, at present it remains nigh-impossible to objectively determine and report the true situation on the ground at Florida State Hospital – beyond doubt, unadulterated by purported “facts” that have been exaggerated, glossed over/understated, deliberately omitted, misunderstood or outright falsely stated by the understandably passionate and/or cautious opposing players in the dire public conflict. The genuine public and occupational health risks – or lack thereof – posed by Florida State Hospital during this unprecedented global pandemic remains, sadly, open to interpretation and personal belief; responsibly gathering reliable answers to the questions and fears troubling the public as to what’s happening inside the historic walls of Gadsden County’s largest single employer remains an ongoing process, to date hampered and clouded by too many human variables to report any information as objective “fact.”
That’s not to say information from official and/or otherwise reliable sources is altogether absent; on the contrary, all sides of the issue have been quite vocal when it comes to making their viewpoints and personal truths known. One of the first formal, organized efforts at spreading the word about Florida State Hospital’s alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis came from the Gadsden County chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In public press conferences, as well as news releases and an open letter to state officials, chapter president Sam Palmer has lambasted the Department of Children and Families and Florida State Hospital leadership for allegedly perpetrating, or at least ignoring, a host of purported infractions to common health and safety conventions at the facility, thereby risking the wellness and very lives of employees and the residents of communities they call home. Palmer alleges COVID-19 testing and other diagnostic protocols are grossly underutilized at FSH, with intake staff reportedly failing to test new patients until after they’ve been admitted and, therefore, exposed to the general patient population.
No doubt at least partly in response to these claims, just days after Palmer’s initial public remarks, Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell suspended new patient admission through April 30, reportedly to allow for mass cleaning and disinfection of the entire facility, as well as time for extended employee training on new coronavirus contagion prevention measures and the development of improved quarantine/isolation protocols.
In a later prepared statement issued to news media, Palmer stated that three Florida State Hospital employees had tested positive for coronavirus, and the facility’s alleged lax entry screening, impotent isolation protocols, and inadequate supplies and/or use of contagion prevention gear, among other complaints, meant that potentially dozens of additional staff, as well as patients, had been exposed to the infected employees – and, thus, the highly contagious coronavirus they carried – prior to their being tested and sent home (in the case of staff). Responding to news media requests for an explanation, earlier this month the Department of Children and Families issued a prepared statement acknowledging a single confirmed case of COVID-19 among hospital staff. As of press time Tuesday, the department had so far not officially rescinded or changed its initial count of one confirmed employee infection. Asked to shed some light on the discrepancy, department officials declined comment, referring all queries to public information officers, who – as of press time Tuesday – had not returned phone calls or responded to an email inquiry sent on April 8.
Palmer is also sticking to his guns, referencing the “three” employee COVID-19 cases in subsequent news releases, even offering details on each of the sick employees in question and the circumstances surrounding their purported positive tests. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – the union that represents most of the lower-level workers at Florida State Hospital – has also gotten involved, issuing a statement earlier this week backing up the NAACP chapter president’s claims.
“At least three staff members at [sic] Chattahoochee State Hospital have now tested positive for COVID-19,” the AFSCME statement begins. “According to multiple reports from AFSCME members at the hospital, management continued to allow staff members who had contact with the initial individual to work without Personal Protective Equipment for several days. ‘There was no call for quarantine and no regard for staff who were feeling ill,’ said Gail Pride, a Unit Treatment Rehab Specialist at Chattahoochee. On April 3, Ms. Pride began to feel ill but was told by [Department of Children and Families] management at the Hospital that she needed to continue working her full shift.”
Pride’s supervisor, the AFSCME statement goes on to say, allegedly “forced” Pride to work a second shift at the hospital, despite the rehab being obviously symptomatic. According to local AFSCME officials, Pride had to work “more than 14 hours” at the hospital “while sick,” without access to basic medical gear designed to prevent the spread of infection, e.g. face masks and the like.
“The wanton disregard for the health and safety of our members and residents at [sic] Chattahoochee State Hospital is appalling,” Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida, says in the prepared statement issued this week. “We call on [Department of Children and Families] and all state agencies managing facilities at Chattahoochee to immediately alert staff of the positive cases and set up a clear quarantine process and testing for anyone exposed to the virus.”
As bold, alarming, perhaps even unfathomable, as the claims from the local NAACP and AFSCME have been, Palmer and Hall aren’t the only sources outside the general public voicing such troubling allegations related to Florida State Hospital and the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to the anonymous state hospital employee quoted earlier comparing her place of employment to a “war zone,” two other frontline workers have also been willing to go on the record with their similar accounts of the harrowing situation brewing inside Florida State Hospital. They, too, would only speak on condition of anonymity, voicing fear of losing their jobs or other backlash, should their supervisors get wind of their cooperation with news media.
Given the sensitive nature of the circumstances and the sources’ insistence on being unnamed, additional measures were taken to safeguard accuracy and objectivity. The current employment of each of the three anonymous sources at Florida State Hospital was validated via official documentation and other means; the sources were also interviewed on separate occasions at neutral locations and were not made aware that any other employees had agreed to speak on the record. Lastly, questions were carefully worded so as to not lead the interviewees or otherwise influence their answers. Rather than ask for confirmations/denials on specific rumors and other public allegations, the state hospital employees were asked only to describe an average workday since the coronavirus outbreak and to list/ explain action taken by their bosses in response, among other general, nonspecific queries.
The resulting employee accounts were, nonetheless, similar, with all three sources painting a bleak picture of dangerously slow, questionable action by administration in response to the escalating COVID-19 crisis. All three alleged that little coronavirus testing has been performed at the hospital so far, despite multiple patients exhibiting tell-tale symptoms of the resulting disease, COVID-19; two mentioned questionable, arguably illogical initial isolation/quarantine procedures for said patients, with measures being inconsistently applied. One source described a buildup of what appears to be a massive new quarantine space, ominously adding that the hospital recently ordered a substantial quantity of body bags, though she could not say beyond doubt that the order was unusual. All three sources described lax, inconsistent symptom screening for employees arriving on site to begin shiftss and other facility entrants. Perhaps most troublingly, there is a gross shortage of personal protective gear hospital-wide, the sources said, echoing public claims made by activists. It was the ongoing lack of adequate protection gear about which the employee sources were most vocal and obviously concerned. One source in particular was visibly shaken as she described interactions with patients suspected of harboring infection, face disturbingly bare, unmasked, unprotected. Weeping, trembling she said she was “really scared” of contracting coronavirus – not just for the sake of her own health, but that of her family and loved ones.
No matter their outward emotion, all three sources described in great detail the hospital’s severe shortage of basic personal protection equipment (or “PPEs”), including face masks and no-touch thermometers. Physicians are allegedly the only staff members currently afforded masks with any regularity; lower level healthcare workers have had to ration and rotate use, routinely reusing masks beyond manufacturing recommendations and at times simply making do without, all three alleged. One mentioned a state policy on purchasing from approved vendors as being a possible cause for the apparent lack of – or at least slow – action when it comes to obtaining protection supplies.
But regardless of the specific issue, grievances brought to the attention of supervisors by low-level workers almost always fall on deaf ears, two of the sources complained. Seven days after leaving voicemails on Public Relations department phones and emailing public relations officers, as of press time Tuesday, the Department of Children and Families had not responded to a series of questions related to the sources’ allegations, as well as patient testing data and isolation procedures. Meanwhile, Chattahoochee residents have called on Governor Ron Desantis, State Senator Bill Montford and Representative Ramon Alexander to take immediate action to right the reported wrongs at Florida State Hospital, particularly those related to employee and public safety.
Both Montford and Alexander have expressed a “great deal of concern” regarding the allegations in comments to area news outlets and other public venues, with solutions reportedly in the works. We will update this developing story on the web as new information is made available.
By Brian Dekle