Frontline workers struggle with violent assaults during COVID-19 surge

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A couple of weeks into the new year, police were called to the North Austin Medical Center on an assault call. A man who had been brought to the hospital under a mental health hold got into a confrontation with the medical staff and punched a registered nurse in the face, according to the arrest warrant.  

Just a few months later, the Travis County District Attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the patient.

The office wrote the decision was “in the interest of justice.”

It’s a scenario that plays out over and over in court records stemming from assaults on the medical staff, EMS workers, and security guards at hospitals in Austin.

Since the start of 2020, the Austin Police Department has made incident reports for more than 60 alleged assaults on healthcare workers and support staff at hospitals across the city, including Dell Seton Medical Center, St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, St. David’s Medical Center, Austin Diagnostic Clinic, and Ascension Seton Medical Center.  

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has taken over hospitals across Texas – pushing them to capacity and exhausting frontline workers. Dr. Serena Bumpus, a registered nurse and the practice director for the Texas Nurses Association, says violent assaults have always been an issue inside medical facilities but have been made worse during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has definitely caused concern for an increase in the number of workplace violence injuries because we’re experiencing longer wait times in our healthcare facilities, we have staffing shortages. And, you know, this is a period of time where families aren’t able to be with their loved ones,” Bumpus said. “There are also mental health issues that exacerbate the workplace violence incidents. Substance abuse is another reason why those occur from time to time.”

Bumpus says verbal and physical assaults on staff inside medical facilities happen daily, but largely go unreported.

“There is a mindset among the profession that this is just part of the job,” Bumpus said.

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office says often with cases dealing with assaults on healthcare workers, there are compounding factors dealing with mental illness.

In a statement, the Director of Diversion and Policy at the District attorney’s office, Rickey Jones said, “In these difficult cases, we also have to consider whether the person is competent to be prosecuted, or can become competent and whether the person was sane at the time the crime was committed. We also consider whether there are other resources or processes that could best prevent future criminal conduct by people with unmet mental health needs.”

In the last legislative session, Texas Rep. Donna Howard, a former nurse, introduced a bill addressing assaults in healthcare facilities. It would have required hospitals to create prevention plans, track workplace violence, and provide treatment for staff after an assault. The bill failed in the senate.

“We don’t want to criminalize people that have mental health issues that create this dysfunctional behavior. At the same time, we have to protect the workforce,” Howard said. “Part of the problem is nurses see this as part of the job and have some of the highest rates of workplace violence according to OSHA of almost any profession. It’s been part of the job. They don’t report it and oftentimes the healthcare facilities have not required the reporting or kept the incident reports when they were made.”

“Part of the legislation that we proposed this last time was to put this in place so that we would have better records about what is going on.”

KXAN reached out to health systems in Austin to ask what prevention policies they already had in place and if they track violent assaults inside their facilities. Ascension Seton has not provided answers to those questions.

Baylor Scott & White Health said they have a comprehensive workplace safety program, which provides training on recognizing, preventing, and reporting incidents. The hospital system said it also provides emotional support resources, but spokespersons did not provide an answer as to how or if they track violent assaults in the hospital setting.

St. David HealthCare responded to KXAN with this statement:

St. David’s HealthCare is committed to providing a safe workplace for all employees, volunteers, patients and visitors. As such, its facilities maintain a zero-tolerance policy on violence, threatening or abusive behavior, and disruptive behavior that may compromise the care environment. 

Employees must report any suspicious activity or incident to their supervisor, security staff or human resources representative. All threats are investigated, and, if appropriate, law enforcement may be contacted.

St. David’s Healthcare provides support to any employee who is a victim of violence in the workplace, including treatment, individual counseling and paid time to pursue prosecution.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

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