I work as a counselor at an acute mental healthcare facility in the Southeastern United States. I love what I do, but what I’ve observed during the past one month is that acute mental healthcare in the United States is woefully unprepared to tackle the coronavirus. Mental healthcare is something that we’re not hearing much of anything about during this crisis because of the focus on medical care, though protective precautions for patients and employees in the mental healthcare industry – particularly acute, long-term, and residential facilities – must be addressed and improved.
On Friday, March 6, 2020, I began wearing my own N95 masks – that I bought from eBay sellers – to work. I paid a high price for the masks, but it was worth it. I was the first employee (to my knowledge) to wear any type of mask at my place of employment, due to my own coronavirus precautions. Beginning on Friday, March 20, 2020, I also added cotton gloves to my arsenal of gear, also purchased from a vendor on eBay. Keep in mind that I’m not sick, and I’m doing whatever possible to stay that way with having to go to work.
Medical and healthcare policies toward protecting patients and staff from potential coronavirus exposure and infection need improvement in American mental health facilities. Only last week did my facility begin requiring employees to get temperature checks before entering any units. Each person is on their honor to now do their own temperature check and log the correct temperature. No medically-qualified staff are present when this occurs, nor to confirm the results. It may also be a good idea to have staff check their temperatures prior to leaving work, as well, though that has not yet been required.
Patients coming into my facility from other hospitals are generally already wearing masks that they’ve gotten from the previous facility. Only last week did my hospital begin supplying surgical masks to those patients and staff who ask for them. My understanding is that there is a low supply. More and more staff during the course of the past one month are wearing masks, including a few wearing N95 masks, and the majority wearing surgical masks. I would estimate, however, that not even one-quarter of the staff who work at my hospital during the day are wearing masks.
Yesterday, I wore an N95 mask for 14 hours. I wore it for 8.5 hours at work, and also for the rest of the day, including at home. I would ordinarily only wear the mask while at work, but yesterday, I was exposed to a staff member who was exposed to a patient at his other hospital who is in serious, if not critical, condition due to the coronavirus. I did inform two supervisors about it, and I wiped my department office down with Lysol since this colleague was also using my desk. Today, my work colleague got tested. When I checked-in with him, he stated to me that he has to wait 5-7 days for results and stay quarantined for 14 days. There was also a patient on the unit I was assigned to who was sent out to a medical hospital, yesterday, due to potential coronavirus symptoms. So, while I wasn’t exposed to that patient, I was exposed to staff who were exposed to that patient. Thankfully, I wear my mask and gloves at work for everything except eating and drinking, so I hope I’m safe from being infected.
Today, I’ve already worn the same N95 mask for 12 hours that I wore yesterday. I’m taking precautions to protect my family in case I have the coronavirus. I also washed in the laundry today three pairs of cotton gloves that I’ve been wearing – while also continuing to wear another pair. I figure that if I have coronavirus symptoms, they’ll start to appear within about three days, from what I’ve read. By Wednesday evening, I should know one way or the other.
Of course, I’m also doing social distancing, both at work and at home, while also wearing my mask and gloves. I’m also doing my laundry after work, as well as running the dishwasher to keep dishes clean. In the shower, I’m using latex gloves and I’m not keeping my soap in the soap dish, so no one else uses it. I’m also wearing latex gloves while cooking for my family. Hopefully, all of this will help prevent this ravaging virus from infecting me and my family!
I’ve been saying for weeks at work that everyone – including patients and staff – needs to wear masks. At my facility, that has not been encouraged to say the least, though I hope it will be in the near future for everyone’s protection. Everyone in facilities throughout the United States needs to wear masks, and if they’re not already wearing gloves, to wash their hands often and sanitize their areas as much as possible. We don’t know everything there is to know about this virus, though what we do know is scary and tragic. Too many people have already been lost to this horrible pandemic. People in the United States – and around the world – need to take coronavirus much more seriously, including mental healthcare professionals – for our own welfare as well as that of everyone we treat!