CDC via Unsplash
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots. (CDC via Unsplash)

Dr. Immacula Cann is still struggling with the symptoms of COVID-19.

She says she contracted the disease because her employer didn’t act quickly enough to keep patients and staff safe by preventing exposure. Cann works at the Bridgeport Mental Health Center, which is operated by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“I’ve been very vocal as an educator and one of the things I’ve noticed is that we didn’t get ahead of this issue,” said Cann, who is a Clinical Education Specialist for the agency. “We were more reactive than proactive. A lot of private hospitals started questioning people, taking temperatures. They put certain protocols into place including social distancing. At DMHAS we had to demand that protocols be put in place.”

Cann, 53, who has suffered headaches, bone chilling body aches and difficulty breathing since the onset of symptoms March 26, contends that her diagnosis was not shared with those who were close to her in the days before she became ill.

“That’s really bad. The clients are at risk,” she said. “The information was not being shared so staff members can follow up with their doctors.”

Cann is among hundreds of DHMAS employees – represented by the New England Healthcare Employees Union District SEIU 1199 – who signed a petition emailed to DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon and other state officials Thursday. Their petition demands more protective equipment, clear protocols on how to deal with patients who contract COVID-19, and clear instructions on what to do if a staff member is infected with the virus that has killed 380 state residents since March 1.

Delphin-Rittmon declined to accept the petition, according to union officials. A representative of the agency said earlier in the week that DHMAS had protocols in place “that are appropriate to our system” and in line with other mental health facilities across the state and country.

“As our understanding related to COVID-19 evolves, DMHAS continues to adapt our protocols to ensure they remain aligned with the recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Connecticut Department of Public Health,” agency spokeswoman Mary Kate Mason said.

But a month after Gov. Ned Lamont declared a state of emergency as the coronavirus pandemic began to impact Connecticut, DMHAS officials still hadn’t gotten an isolation ward running for patients of Connecticut Valley Hospital who tested positive for COVID-19, employees said.

As of Thursday afternoon the ward had been designated, the proper personal protective equipment had been stocked, and the team of medical professionals was chosen, but the unit still wasn’t ready for patients, according to addiction counselor Brian Williams. Seven patients and four staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

“You can’t open the floor if you don’t have all those things in place,” Williams said. “You need the equipment, you need the skill set. There are some things they’ve done, but it’s not all in place. They need to pick up the speed.”

Williams said that there are protocols for dealing with COVID-19 in place – but agency officials haven’t shared any of them with frontline staff who are dealing with patients. “A protocol is only useful if it’s disseminated widely to the people who are doing the work,” Williams said.

When the ward for COVID-19 patients opens, Williams wants to know how staff should handle admitting a patient. The single elevator in the building where the ward will be housed is also used for other patients and food services.

“As soon as a patient (with COVID-19) is transported, that elevator should be disabled and cleaned and staff should be able to watch to confirm how it was cleaned,” Williams said. “We want all of this written down as to how it’s going to play out.”

Employees want the agency to provide comprehensive emergency protocols for COVID-19, including which staff and patients should be tested for the disease, expedited testing to help stop the spread, and training in how to properly wear and dispose of personal protective equipment.

The frantic call for help from DHMAS healthcare employees has legislators and advocates wondering why some of Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents in state care were left without adequate protections against COVID-19.

“You cannot isolate in a psychiatric ward. It’s the same as a jail or prison,” said Kathy Flaherty, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project that provides legal services to low-income people with mental health conditions. “The challenge is the geography of the rooms. It’s dormitory living. Putting someone into seclusion is not too different than putting someone in solitary confinement.”

Flaherty contends that more patients should have been moved to the community before the virus took hold in state psychiatric wards. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in a DHMAS ward watching what is happening and knowing that you are a sitting duck,” Flaherty said. “There is no way you can contact family unless it’s on a shared patient phone.”

Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, was under the impression that designated isolation wards for patients with COVID-19 were in use at CVH and Whiting Forensic Hospital, where six patients and eight staff have tested positive as of Tuesday.

“It’s clear that DMHAS’ clients are among the most vulnerable in the state,” Lesser said. “And it’s clear that they have been slow to act.”

The agency shut down its detox unit, which would have brought more people into the facilities during the pandemic, he said. “My fear is that there are vulnerable populations in congregate settings across the state that leaders aren’t paying attention to,” Lesser said.

Looking back, Cann said she can see that protocols weren’t taken seriously. “We are continuously fighting for social distancing,” she said. “But mostly staff members need to be equipped so they can safely and effectively do their job. As someone who has the illness, this is a very serious matter and it’s not a matter that can be taken lightly.”