Peachford Hospital, a mental and behavorial health facility on Dunwoody’s Peachford Road, is facing complaints alleging a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions for staff and patients, which a private accrediting group and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration are investigating. The hospital has denied some of the specific complaints while generally saying it follows federal pandemic guidelines.

Three Peachford employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity cited such concerns as a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing for patients, and lack of notice about at least two patients and one staff member testing positive for COVID-19. They acknowledged the hospital uses some precautions, including mask-wearing for all staff members starting June 30.

The sign for Peachford Hospital on Peachford Road. (Google Maps)

“Nobody comes in and cleans the gym before the next age group comes in there. Nor do they social distance in the gym, nor do they social distance in the cafeteria, nor do they have anything around encouraging social distances — no signs, no stickers, no markers, anything,” said one employee. “It’s almost like when you come into Peachford, the coronavirus doesn’t exist.”

Clay Boyles, the director of human resources and compliance officer at Peachford, did not address all of those specific complaints when asked about them, but said the hospital has taken many precautions, including twice-daily screenings and a ban on visitation.

“At Peachford Hospital, the health and safety of our patients and staff is of highest priority,” said Boyles. “We are following guidelines from CDC [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and our local health authorities. PPE [personal protective equipment] is available and being used. Peachford Hospital practices and encourages social distancing where possible and when appropriate throughout the facility. Physicians make the decision on whether masking a patient is medically required.”

Boyles said he was aware that a complaint about Peachford was filed in March with OSHA, a federal agency that enforced worker protection laws and guidelines. “We believe the complaint was unfounded and to date, as we have no indication that OSHA will seek further information, we believe this matter is closed,” he said.

However, an OSHA spokesperson said an “inquiry” is underway. “OSHA has received complaints involving Peachford Hospital and currently has an open inquiry at the facility,” the spokesperson said July 24.

Peachford’s precautions are also getting an examination from The Joint Commission, an Illinois-based private organization that accredits hospitals. The Joint Commission’s Office of Quality and Patient Safety “is aware of patient safety concerns at Peachford Hospital,” said spokesperson Katie Looze Bronk. “OQPS is currently evaluating the concerns.”

The Joint Commission has no regulatory powers, Bronk said, but can “help organizations identify deficiencies in care and correct them as quickly and sustainably as possible.”

Most pandemic precautions at this point are guidelines rather than legal requirements.

The entrance to Peachford Hospital as seen in a 2019 Google Maps image.

Peachford is a 246-bed hospital that has operated at 2151 Peachford Road since 1973. It currently has 520 employees, according to Boyles. It is operated by Universal Health Services, a Pennsylvania-based Fortune 500 company that did not directly respond to a comment request. The Joint Commission accredits the hospital and gave it good marks in an evaluation last year.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Peachford has never faced a challenge like the pandemic.

“There really isn’t precedent for COVID-19 — as we all know, the world has not experienced a pandemic in recent times,” said Boyles. “We are diligent and agile, learning and relearning how to do our jobs every day and always keeping the safety of our patients and staff as our highest priority. We do believe that we are all in this together as one, fighting a common enemy.”

The three employees who spoke to the Reporter say they and several others had to pressure the administration for basics like mask-wearing and that they continue to feel unsafe. They also expressed concern about the situation for patients who are involuntarily committed and cannot choose to leave.

One employee said that during the month of June, workers ramped up demands for a mask-wearing requirement, but that “it was like they were in a bubble, that they felt that nobody in Peachford could be touched by this pandemic.” The masks and a policy mandating their use finally came at the end of the month, the employee said, and is still not well-enforced. Other PPE is still not provided, the employee said.

Patients are still not required to wear masks, the employees said, and freely mingle without distancing in the cafeteria. Patients are maskless in group sessions with as many as 30 to 50 participants, the employees said.

Other complaints involve a lack of notice about positive tests and working with symptomatic patients. One employee said she heard from word of mouth that a patient she worked with on June 27 had tested positive and that two other employees who worked with him later tested positive also.

On July 4, a patient who tested positive was sent to a local emergency room and then returned under quarantine, two of the employees said. Two other patients in the same unit exhibited fever and symptoms of COVID-19, but staff members were required to continue working them, the employees said. One employee said she was given a mask that was not fit-tested and was told she did not need further PPE.

The employees expressed concern about staff and patients being only screened, not tested, for COVID-19. One also questioned the application of the screening, saying that employees are required to work their shift even if they answer yes to a question about possible COVID-19 exposure. Boyles said that is not true.

Staff members who test positive are required to use personal time off rather than getting paid sick leave, the employees said. Many employees are looking for work elsewhere, they said. One of them contrasted the situation with the popular image of medical workers as heroes in the pandemic.

“Am I really a hero, and this is how you’re going to treat me?” the employee said.

Boyles did not respond to every point of the employee complaints, but gave a detailed overview of Peachford’s precautions.

“All employees, visitors, guests and physicians are screened before entering any of the buildings on our campus each and every day,” Boyles said. “This screening includes a temperature check. Any person who does not meet our screening criteria is not allowed on campus. We screen each patient twice daily, including taking their temperatures. Patients with any symptoms are required to wear a mask, are generally placed in a private room and do not leave the unit except as necessary.

“Visitation has been suspended at Peachford since March,” Boyles said. “Masks are required for employees at all times. Masks are strongly recommended and readily available for patients, as deemed appropriate by their physician. Meetings inside the hospital have been restricted to allow for social distancing and we practice social distancing in patient care areas where safe and when appropriate. Our leadership team meets regularly to review our progress and make improvements in our processes, many of which are suggested by our employees.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.