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137 Patients, 100 Staff Test Positive In COVID-19 Outbreaks At Two State-Run Hospitals02:40
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The Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Significant outbreaks of COVID-19 are now emerging in state-run hospitals in Massachusetts. The facilities care for hundreds of patients, many with chronic physical and behavioral health conditions.

State officials said the largest outbreaks are among patients at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain and Tewksbury State Hospital. As of Thursday, 75 patients and 60 staff had tested positive at Tewksbury State Hospital, which has 394 patient beds. At Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, 62 patients and 40 staff had tested positive. Shattuck has 255 beds.

Separately, the state Department of Correction reported that two patients in the Shattuck correctional wing and one DOC worker also tested positive.

Last week, the state deployed the National Guard to both facilities to test patients. The state also set up wings devoted to COVID-19 patients and established emergency COVID-19 command centers at both hospitals to help with operations during the pandemic, according to the state Department of Public Health. DPH oversees both of the hospitals.

So far, no COVID-19 deaths have been reported at a state-run hospital.

The Shattuck and Tewksbury State Hospitals provide acute and chronic hospital care to some of Massachusetts' most vulnerable residents, including those who are homeless, severely mentally ill and incarcerated.

Some patient advocates said the pandemic has resulted in many mental health patients being isolated in their rooms and not receiving treatment for illnesses old or new.

"We are getting some urgent emails from them begging us to help," said Deborah Shields, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts. "They're all squished together with no possibility for social distancing, and there is no treatment going on — for mental health or for COVID-19."

Two unions representing workers at the hospitals said the state has been reluctant to confirm the testing numbers with all staff.

"We should have been ahead of the curve on this, not behind it," said Roland Goff, director of strategic campaigns for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the union representing nurses at state-run hospitals. "The state system is an under-resourced system on the best days, so obviously that puts them behind. At the same time, the entire health care industry has been behind the curve on this."

The MNA represents about 1,800 nurses working in various state-run facilities. The union said while it welcomes the National Guard testing of patients that began last week, staff should be tested as well.

"Testing only patients is not sufficient to truly get the data to act appropriately," Goff said. "We need to test all staff because that will give people knowledge about how to respond."

The state Department of Mental Health (DMH) also has some patients and workers at both facilities. The Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents social workers and other staff at some state hospitals, is collecting signatures on a petition asking for improved communication and transparency from the agency.

"The agency has been slow to adopt changes that would protect our health, and by extension the health of the patients we serve and our own families," the SEIU petition reads. "We need Executive Office of Health and Human Services leadership to intervene to protect the safety of all DMH workers, and provide us the information we need to do our jobs effectively during this crisis."

Union leaders at SEIU said all workers should receive free coronavirus testing. They also asked the state to provide information about all positive tests of patients and staff.

"We don't need to know the specific person who maybe tested positive — we understand that's private and confidential," said SEIU Local 509 President Peter MacKinnon. "But our members deserve to know if they might have been exposed to someone who has tested positive."

The Department of Mental Health said it has adhered to all federal and state guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The Department of Mental Health state-operated hospitals have been following Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to maintain the health and safety of patients and staff," the agency said in an emailed statement. "Since March 19, DMH has been restricting visitors, screening staff and quarantining potential COVID-19 cases in our facilities."

DPH emailed a similar statement regarding the four state hospitals it operates: Shattuck, the Pappas Rehabilitation Hospital for Children, Tewksbury State Hospital and Western Massachusetts Hospital.

This article was originally published on April 16, 2020.

This segment aired on April 17, 2020.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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