Concerned about an outbreak of COVID-19 in the state’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, two advocacy groups for people with disabilities have launched an investigation into alleged problems.
The Disability Law Center and the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee sent a letter to the state Thursday requesting more information about the treatment of patients in the Metro Boston Mental Health Units at the Shattuck hospital.
“We are hearing that they are not getting any programming, that they are not being let outside and that COVID is intermixed in all the units,’’ said Lauren Roy, a staff attorney with the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee. “They are putting staff and clients at risk.”
Roy’s state-funded agency is tasked with supporting people with mental disabilities and the Disability Law Center is federally mandated to protect the rights of the disabled. The advocates are seeking more information about the facility, including the screening and testing of patients and access to fresh air and cleaning supplies, among other questions.
State health officials declined to comment on the investigation. Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the state is working hard to prevent the spread of the disease and protect workers.
“The priority in all health and human services settings is to provide high-quality, safe care to the individuals we serve — a mission that is especially true during this unprecedented public health emergency,’’ she said in a statement. “We are and will continue to do everything in our power to ensure an aggressive and rapid response to COVID-19 confirmed cases at facilities operated and overseen by the Commonwealth.”
The state has been testing patients at the Shattuck and Tewksbury Hospital as part of a collaboration with the Massachusetts National Guard and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, she said. The state also recently activated special command centers at the Shattuck and Tewksbury hospitals that report directly to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
“This enables a cohesive, rapid response to the continuing public health emergency,’’ a press release said.
There are at least 37 patients and 23 staff members who have tested positive at Shattuck and 67 patients and 46 staff at the Tewksbury Hospital, according to state officials.
Peter MacKinnon, president of the SEIU Local 509 that represents nearly 20,000 state health and human service workers, said the union has been hearing growing concerns from members at the two hospitals about their own safety, the availability of protective equipment and the growing outbreak.
“They are very scared, and understandably so,’’ he said, “and they are not feeling the support that they need to be able to do the job safely and effectively.”
The Shattuck hospital cares for some of the state’s poorest people, managing 255 inpatient beds, including mental health patients, incarcerated individuals and people experiencing homelessness, according to a state website.
MacKinnon said the facility is the state’s ultimate “safety net hospital” — the “place of last resort’’ for low-income people who need medical treatment.
Roy said the investigation was launched after a call from a client at the hospital. Windows don’t open in the behavioral health unit, she said. Even in a pandemic, she said, patients should be allowed outside in a controlled way.
She said advocates have heard from both staff and patients who are frustrated with conditions.
“We're hearing from various people that both the staff and the patients are just very unhappy at the Shattuck,’’ she said.