March 31, 2023

Health workers get panic buttons as COVID deniers get violent

Health workers get panic buttons as COVID deniers get violent
Health workers get panic buttons as COVID deniers get violentHealth workers get panic buttons as COVID deniers get violent
A woman in personal protective gear operates machinery.
Enlarge / A healthcare worker treats a patient inside a negative pressure room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Hospitals in several states are ramping up security and even providing wearable panic buttons to staff amid a wave of violent attacks sparked by COVID-related misinformation, denialists, and conspiracy theorists.

In a hospital in Branson, Missouri, as many as 400 staff members will have panic buttons added to their identification badges after assaults on staff members tripled amid the pandemic. Assaults rose from 40 in 2019 to 123 in 2020, the Associated Press reported. The numbers for 2021 have not been released. When pressed, the panic buttons will immediately alert hospital security and trigger a tracking system to locate the endangered worker.

Jackie Gatz, vice president of safety and preparedness for the Missouri Hospital Association, told the AP that, in addition to panic buttons, hospitals are also adding extra security cameras and having security personnel wear body cameras. A hospital in Springfield, Missouri, added security dogs, as well as panic buttons. Gatz noted that staff are also receiving training on de-escalation and physical protection tactics, such as keeping a hospital bed between a nurse and an agitated person.

In Idaho, health facilities are also beefing up security. COVID-related misinformation has spread like wildfire in the region, and patients have become belligerent.

“We’ve had reports of physical violence, verbal abuse, demands for alternative treatment that are not acceptable or approved. And those become very difficult conversations to have as the patient continues to decompensate,” Brian Whitlock, president of the Idaho Hospital Association, told the AP.

Garbage and obscenities

Kootenai Health, in northern Idaho, increased security after people got into disputes with staff over masking requirements and staged protests outside the hospital. “I mean, we had a protest outside the hospital against masks and vaccines a couple of weeks ago that the patients that were dying of COVID inside could see,” Kootenai Health chief of staff Dr. Robert Scoggins said. “I think that was awful.”

Just two weeks ago, the Idaho health department activated “crisis standards of care” statewide amid a crushing wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

In Texas, health workers have also faced a spike in hostility and violence. In a press conference last month, the chief nursing executive for Methodist Healthcare System, Jane McCurley, said staff “have been cursed at, screamed at, threatened with bodily harm and even had knives pulled on them.” McCurley spoke just days after a tense confrontation at a children’s emergency department after a man refused to have his temperature screened before entering, according to The Texas Tribune. “It is escalating… It’s just a handful at each facility who have been extremely abusive. But there is definitely an increasing number of occurrences every day.”

In Colorado, health officials in Jefferson County took mobile vaccination clinics off the road over Labor Day weekend after medical staff faced jeers, harassment, and assaults. At one clinic, a driver ran over clinic signs surrounding a vaccine tent. At another location, someone threw an unidentified liquid at a public health nurse administering vaccines. Other passersby threw garbage and obscenities at workers.

“I feel COVID has killed our better angels,” Dawn Comstock, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, told The Denver Post at the time. “People are accepting lies about these safe and effective vaccines. This has got to stop.”