ROSEBURG, Oregon — An internal video obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive shows the director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration Medical Center in Roseburg holding a flash mob dance party in hospital offices with at least 16 staff, none of them consistently wearing protective equipment or maintaining social distance.
The event appears to be a morale building exercise and was posted Friday on the hospital’s internal intranet, one of the regular updates that Director Keith M. Allen has been posting on COVID-19 and other topics. The updates are viewable by all 1,000 employees in the Roseburg VA district, which covers four southern Oregon counties and a slice of Northern California.
The district serves some 56,000 veterans, many of them elderly and with preexisting conditions. Just a week ago, a Roseburg VA administrator confirmed that four members of the medical center’s staff – including a nurse who ended up on a ventilator in a Portland hospital -- and one patient had tested positive for COVID-19.
Allen’s dance party appears to be in flagrant violation of the state and federal protocols designed to limit spread of the disease.
A spokesperson for the Roseburg VA could not immediately be reached for comment.
The video begins with Allen dancing into a room holding a boombox blaring Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” He is followed by a parade of staff who come sashaying in. A worker in the office, clearly uncomfortable, backs her chair away from the lineup of dancers, and eventually pulls her sweater over her nose and mouth. Several other dancers, all standing in close groups and swirling around one another, are holding or have masks on their person -- the singular dancer who’d been wearing one takes it off midway through.
Almost three minutes into the video, one of the dancers finally notes, “There’s too many people in the room,” and the party breaks up.
“It just seems like they’re not taking it seriously,” said one VA employee, who is not being identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media. “We have veterans that are dying and we know the best thing we can do is these behavioral interventions and social distancing.
“I understand this is a rural county and it’s not spreading fast, but this is how it spreads.”
Shawn Tyson, executive assistant to the Roseburg VA’s associate director, confirmed to Roseburg’s The News-Review that the center had staffers and a patient who tested positive. When asked whether the VA had an active outbreak, he said “absolutely not.”
The Roseburg VA district has closed its Community Based Outreach Centers all but two days a week to guard against spread of the virus. But staff members say they’ve been given inconsistent information about distancing and the use of personal protective equipment.
Governor Kate Brown’s March 23 stay-home order allowed health care employees to go to work, as long as they stayed six feet apart. The order specifically banned social gatherings – parties and celebrations – with people from outside your household.
That followed an earlier order that had banned gatherings of 10 people or more.
Allen leads his dance party in a small room with at least 16 others.
“It’s just disgusting in my opinion,” said another VA staffer who requested anonymity because of the risk to their job. “If it weren’t for the COVID-19 virus we would probably be laughing at this. But this is not okay. We have one of our own in the hospital fighting for his life.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs is also facing increasing criticism nationally as the number of its patients and staff infected with COVID-19 continues to increase. The Hill reported this week that more than 6,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, and 400 have died. It said more than 2,000 VA workers have contracted the disease, and 20 have died.
The news outlet quoted a response from VA press secretary Christina Noel, who said the department’s personal protective equipment “practices are keeping veterans and employees safe during challenging times, and the numbers prove it.”
This is not the first time Allen has been called out for violating social distancing protocols. He posted a video on Wednesday, April 22, on the Roseburg VA’s Facebook page thanking a number of community partners for sponsoring a pizza party at the hospital.
Allen was sitting at a desk in front of several staff members, all standing in close proximity, none wearing masks. Two commenters noted the obvious problem. “Good lord people,” said one, “you’re not standing six feet apart, what a great example of healthcare professionals you are. SMDH. Keep up the good work and see how many veterans you can infect.”
-- Ted Sickinger
This article was originally published by The Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.