The Fresno Bee: by Nadia Lopez; February 15, 2021
A spike in coronavirus-related deaths at a state-run psychiatric hospital in Fresno County has angered and alarmed patients, who blame hospital staff for a massive outbreak that infected hundreds and killed more than a dozen patients over the past six months.
One patient who spoke with The Bee said he struggled to bring attention to the outbreak at Coalinga State Hospital in Fresno County. He said he’s been “ignored” and “neglected” for one simple reason — most of the patients in Coalinga are rapists, child molesters, and sexually violent predators.
“I screamed my head off. It’s ridiculous,” said Sam Consiglio, a 69-year-old convicted violent sex offender. “I’m certain I was ignored. This hospital was really negligent, but I just can’t get anybody to care about these guys because they think of us as the worst of the worst.”
The Coalinga facility has 1,286 beds and treats sexually violent predators, offenders with mental health disorders, and a group of severely disabled people who haven’t committed crimes but represent a danger to themselves or others.
“Nobody cares about sex offenders,” he added.
A total of 20 residents have died, including 18 in the past six months, after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the California Department of State Hospital’s patient data tracker.
Consiglio said hospital staffers refused to follow basic COVID-19 safety standards, like wearing masks and cleaning properly. He suspects uncleaned phones and other items frequently shared by the residents contributed to the spread.
“It really started hitting heavy, and then all hell broke loose after that,” he said. “I think if (the virus) would have been taken more seriously, as far as the cleaning and the masks, we could have saved some of those lives.”
But hospital officials say such claims aren’t true.
Department officials said mask-wearing among staff was “strictly enforced” and that the pandemic had taken a toll on the hospital’s residents just as it had on the population at large. They added that the hospital had and continues to clean “patient care areas” and other locations within the facility frequently.
“Similar to the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths experienced overall in California in recent months, Coalinga State Hospital also experienced a rise in cases and deaths during this time,” department spokesman Ken August said.
However, the hospital hasn’t explained the winter outbreak, which was among the worst in the state’s five psychiatric facilities. At least 491 patients as of last week tested positive for the virus — the second-highest tally yet recorded behind Patton State Psychiatric Hospital in San Bernardino County.
The hospital employs 2,285 people, ranging from psychiatrists, psychiatric technicians, and nurses to groundskeepers and maintenance workers.
A total of 404 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Since the patients are not allowed to leave, many of them said staff brought the virus into the hospital. Consiglio said employees continued to move through different units despite the number of rising infections.
In August, just two patients had died from COVID-19 complications. Since then, 18 additional deaths have been reported. In six months, the number of infections skyrocketed to 491. Just 28 patients tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital in July, a department spokesperson confirmed.
The numbers began to climb significantly in early December when the hospital reported 180 total cases and about 11 deaths among patients, according to a Department of State Hospitals email. Officials said the number of infections spiked to 315 cases a month later, on Jan. 4. Though deaths also jumped past 11 during that time, officials declined to comment on the exact number.
“While even one death of a patient due to COVID-19 is too many, it’s important to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest public health challenge facing state hospitals, other health care facilities, and California in a century,” he said.
The hospitals regularly test employees, place patients who have tested positive in isolation spaces, and hold new arrivals in observation units for testing, among other measures, according to the Department of State Hospitals website. All patients are also provided masks and encouraged to wear them, August said.
About 16% of the patient population in California’s state-run hospitals are individuals 65 or older, while 64.6% of residents have at least one medical risk factor that makes them high-risk.
In January, the hospitals started vaccinating patients and staff.
A total of 1,164 – about 90% – of patients at the Coalinga hospital had been vaccinated with the first dose as of Monday. Of those employed, 1,959, or about 85% of all staff members, had received their first dose of the vaccine, department data shows.