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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Health care workers face continued harassment over COVID precautions

St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
Josh Burnham
/
Montana Public Radio
St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montana, people across the state started howling at a set time most nights to show their support for health care workers on the frontlines.

COVID-19 cases around the U.S. and in Montana are far below where they peaked earlier this year. However, the virus is still present and health care workers say they face harassment from patients and family members over restrictions meant to prevent spread of the illness.

MTPR’s Freddy Monares spoke with Missoulian reporter, David Erickson, who recently dug into what Missoula hospitals are doing to protect patients and staff.

Freddy Monares: What are the rules at the hospitals and what are they trying to accomplish?

David Erickson: So, the hospitals have a number of protections and programs and restrictions in place that they started during the pandemic, such as, requiring masks and limiting the number of people that can be in certain rooms with patients at the hospitals.

Freddy Monares: And this is meant to prevent the spread of the illness, is that right? 

David Erickson: Exactly. Yeah, reduce the instances of transmission, have fewer people in a room at any given time and also to protect the health care workers that are in those rooms with the patients.

Freddy Monares: And you reported that Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula recently posted signage in front of their building, warning that physical assault, verbal harassment and abusive language won't be tolerated. What did health care workers who've experienced some of this abuse tell you?

David Erickson: Beth Hock, who is the chief nursing officer at St. Patrick Hospital, told me that they have had a significant increase in the number of incidents like this since the pandemic began. Verbal abuse, harassment, threats, sometimes — very rarely ever escalating to threats of physical violence — but, getting to that point. Like nurses and all kinds of different types of hospital staff facing just angry visitors and sometimes angry patients who are upset over these restrictions.

Every segment of the hospital staff has had to face verbal abuse and just very angry and emotional visitors and patients.

Freddy Monares: Yeah, you reported security guards even, right?

David Erickson: Yep, security guards have to get called and security guards face these threats as well. And even, just the front entry staff at the hospital having to face this.
Every segment of the hospital staff has had to face verbal abuse and just very angry and emotional visitors and patients.

Freddy Monares: So, what are hospitals doing to help staff who find themselves in these situations?

David Erickson: So, both hospitals in Missoula have implemented a number of programs. They've always had some kind of de-escalation training to teach these health care workers how to de-escalate a situation when someone's very emotional, or angry, or upset. And that just helps them be prepared in case they find themselves in these situations. But, I think they've kind of stepped up these programs during the pandemic, and they have a number of protocols in place where they can call the security staff, and the security staff at the hospitals also have, you know, ability to call law enforcement.

The hospitals make no exceptions. They were very clear about that. I mean, COVID is something they take very seriously and they're not letting anybody have an exception to these rules.

Freddy Monares: And I feel like it's important to note that these aren't people, like, getting kicked out of a restaurant or movie theater, these are people trying to be with family or friends during hard times. Are there any exceptions for these rules?

David Erickson: The hospitals make no exceptions. They were very clear about that. I mean, COVID is something they take very seriously and they're not letting anybody have an exception to these rules. So I think from what it sounds like, that led to a lot of these frustrations. A patient or a visitor would ask for an exception, and because they're emotional, it's a very stressful time for them.

Freddy Monares: Yeah, I'm just thinking too, the flipside, these health care professionals are trying to keep those same patients safe. Are health care workers still experiencing burnout because of these conditions? 

David Erickson: Yeah. So, you know, Beth Hock told me that at least half, in her estimation, of the caregivers at the hospital face these kind of threats since the pandemic began — or abuse. And everybody I talked to for this story said burnout and stress among health care workers is at an all time high. And a number of health care workers at both hospitals have resigned or quit out of frustration from what they're facing, because they say that's not what I got into this business for, to get screamed at. They got into the industry to help people and care for people, they knew they would have to deal with emotional people at times, but not like this.

Oftentimes, they're there to see a very sick, gravely ill loved one and they're emotional and they want to visit them, and they don't understand why they can't all gather in a room to be around the loved one at the last moments of their life.

Freddy Monares: Did anything else stand out to you from what you heard from hospital workers?

David Erickson: Yeah, just that the hospital leaders I talked to all understand the frustration that patients and visitors are dealing with. You know, it's the most stressful time in their life. Oftentimes, they're there to see a very sick, gravely ill loved one and they're emotional and they want to visit them, and they don't understand why they can't all gather in a room to be around the loved one at the last moments of their life. And the hospital leaders understand that. But at the same time, they have to protect their staff. That's their main duty to protect their staff, to allow those caregivers to go on caring for other patients.

Freddy Monares: David Erickson is a reporter for The Missoulian, who recently covered how Missoula hospitals are training staff to handle threats and abusive behavior. David, thanks for your reporting.

David Erickson: Thank you very much.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.