Nearly 80 patients at Atascadero State Hospital have been without easy access to toilets and drinking water for nine days following a massive sewer blockage, and staffers there tell The Tribune that conditions are becoming increasingly unsanitary and tense.
In units with no running toilets, each patient has been provided with portable urinals, which contributes to messes and unsanitary conditions and requires staff to hand dump the urinals into a 5-gallon trash can, which in turn has to be dumped in a neighboring unit.
“We have been just barely managing,” said a staffer in one of the two affected units. “They are staring to unravel. It’s turning into Lord of the Flies slowly.”
Ralph Montano, a spokesman for the Department of State Hospitals, confirmed Tuesday afternoon that a contractor is currently working to repair a sewer line at the hospital, which contains 34 units of male patients who are facing criminal charges and have been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Montano wrote in an email that there are 77 patients in the two affected units. Those patients, he wrote, are being provided drinking water and access to centralized restrooms and neighboring units for bathroom breaks and showers.
He confirmed the sewer line problem was identified April 14.
Asked about hygienic standards on the affected units, Montano said staff have been provided hand sanitizer and disposable gloves. All staff are allowed to go off-unit to wash their hands as necessary to maintain hygienic standards, he said.
Staffers critical of response
On Tuesday, two hospital staffers affected by the outage separately discussed the issue with The Tribune on condition their names remain anonymous because they are not permitted to talk to the media.
Both said hospital administration has dragged its heels in fixing the problem, and only this week had administration discussed the situation with them in writing.
On Monday — eight days after the problem began — ASH Assistant Hospital Administrator Pedro Henderson sent a mass email to employees about the situation.
“We have experienced a major blockage of the main waste line, affecting both Units 25 and 26,” Henderson wrote. “Plant operations worked diligently throughout last week to unblock this line. Unfortunately, all conventional methods have failed up to this point.”
Henderson wrote that an outside contractor was consulted Monday, “with no other methods offered beyond what we have already performed.”
“Additional routes will be investigated tomorrow in the hope that a closer point of entry to the blockage can be obtained,” he wrote. “We understand that this is a hardship for both staff and patients. We appreciate your patience with this situation as well as your positive attitude and willingness to work with us, through this trying time.”
Felt like camp at first, but not any more
But both staffers say things are reaching a boiling point. In the affected units, staff has to escort most patients to another unit to use restrooms, brush teeth, or take showers, they said. Some patients who would have showered every other day are now showering every three days.
Aside from routine accidents that require water to clean up, patients are also having “accidents” in their urinals, or knocking them over.
“Things are getting a little gamey,” one staffer said.
Both shared concerns about the patients in the affected units, which all take some sort of psychotropic medication and depend on routine. While it felt like camp the first few days, one employee said, things are starting to get tense and some patients are getting aggressive.
The employees said Cal-OSHA has been notified. One said that the facility may be complying “within the letter of the law” of its state regulations. The other said they suspect corners are being cut and administration is not taking the problem seriously.
“We feel like we’re getting lip service,” the employee said.