Oregon State Hospital closes admissions after two patients test positive for COVID-19

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Dec. 2, 2020 2 p.m. Updated: Dec. 2, 2020 4:45 p.m.

The Oregon State Hospital will temporarily suspend admissions after two patients tested positive for COVID-19 last week, according to court documents filed in federal court. A spokesperson for the hospital confirmed the temporary stop to OPB on Tuesday.

The two patients were asymptomatic and were admitted to the hospital from local jails during the week of Nov. 16, court documents state. The Oregon Health Authority received the positive test results on Thanksgiving Day.


“At that time, those patients were transferred to our unit designated for patients who are under investigation, or have tested positive for COVID-19,” said Sara Walker, acting chief medical officer and the chief of psychiatry for the state hospital, according to court documents. “Based on my experience with OSH and with this novel coronavirus, my strong recommendation is that OSH should hold off on admitting any new patients for at least the rest of this week, while we determine the source and extent of the infection.”

The Oregon State Hospital is a state-run psychiatric hospital that houses people in the criminal justice system who need treatment for mental illness, as well as other Oregonians who are committed involuntarily

On Monday, Walker and her team spent the day verifying test results and conducting additional COVID-19 tests on patients and staff in the admissions unit.

“The source of the infection is not yet known; it is likely to have come from one of the jails (via these patients’ admissions cohort), or potentially the community (via staff),” Walker said. “Testing and contact tracing should identify the source of the infections.”

The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore., is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore., is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

The state hospital has about 500 patients at its Salem campus and roughly 1,900 staff.

The two positive patients admitted last month are the first from local jails who have been admitted to the psychiatric hospital, though the hospital had three patients with cases of COVID-19 in late September and early October. Those earlier cases also led a temporary suspension of admissions.


The number of patients under investigation for the virus has also significantly increased in the past two weeks, Walker said, but those investigations are linked to positive staff in other units of the hospital.

In the past month, 16 staff have tested positive for COVID-19, eight of those in the past week, Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokeswoman for the state hospital said.

Disability advocates say a two-day pause in admissions to allow for testing is a reasonable public health measure.

“Following that, the state hospital needs to come up with a plan that protects the civil rights and health of all people who they have custody over — including those people waiting for admission in county jails,” said attorney Jesse Merrithew, who represents Metropolitan Public Defender, which has sued the state hospital over past admission delays. “No solution that leaves people waiting in county jails is acceptable.”

Since 2002, the state hospital has been under a federal court order that requires it to admit patients within seven days of a judge ruling they’re too mentally ill to aid in their own criminal defense.

It’s fallen out of compliance with that order several times in recent years. Some of the longest delays were in 2019, when more than 35 patients were stuck in local jails with wait times that stretched as long as 30 days before gaining admission to the hospital for treatment.

Jail staff and attorneys have said they’ve seen inmates’ mental health deteriorate further when people languish in jails rather than receive therapy at the state hospital. The Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the state hospital, has advocated for communities to provide more local mental health treatment rather than relying on the state hospital.

After COVID-19 hit Oregon earlier this year, the state hospital once again shut its doors to protect those inside. In doing so, they again fell out of compliance with the court’s seven-day order.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman temporarily suspended the seven-day admission requirement, which disability advocates have appealed. Mosman also approved a new 21-day admissions plan that requires testing and a quarantine process as patients are monitored for symptoms. It was during this new admission process the two recent cases were caught, before the patients were admitted into the larger hospital population.

“This is our system working, because we want to be able to catch cases,” Gipson-King said. She declined to say which county or jail the inmates came from, citing health privacy laws.

“We will definitely be in touch with the jail to let them know,” Gipson-King said.