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Roseburg VA hospital says it will address coronavirus safety protocols in wake of flash mob dance video

Roseburg VA hospital (Veterans Health/Flickr)

The U.S. Veteran’s Administration hospital in Roseburg said this week it will reiterate the importance of social distancing to staff after a leaked video showed the facility’s director holding a flash mob last week with more than a dozen employees dancing together.

The video, obtained last week by The Oregonian/OregonLive, showed facility director Keith Allen and VA personnel dancing together in the administrative offices without personal protection equipment or social distancing — in flagrant violation of safety protocols.

The Roseburg VA Health Care facility has already had at least four COVID-19 cases, has an infected staff member who was put on a ventilator at a Portland hospital, and serves a vulnerable population of elderly veterans, many with preexisting conditions. The video, which was labeled as a “director’s update” and posted on the VA regional intranet, outraged VA employees and shocked members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.

It also wasn’t the first instance of director Keith Allen’s ignoring those protocols. An April 22 video posted to the hospital’s Facebook page show him surrounded by staff, none wearing masks or physically distancing, thanking community members for sponsoring a staff pizza party.

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“Director Allen’s actions were totally inappropriate, especially in a healthcare setting and especially given the numerous veterans with underlying health conditions,” U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said in an emailed statement. His district includes Roseburg.

Tim Parish, a spokesman for the hospital, said all the 16 participants in the incident participated voluntarily. He said the facility was not required to follow state protocols but has had safeguards in place since March 13 in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. Those include “comprehensive COVID-19 screening process for staff, visitors, patients, and contractors.”

“This video was made in an administrative, non-clinical area where PPE (personal protective equipment) is not required,” he said. “All staff who participated were volunteers and had been properly screened, per CDC and VA guidelines.

“VA realizes the importance of social distancing during this national emergency and will reiterate that to all employees involved,” Parish wrote.

Parish did not say what that screening involves, but it’s been made clear by medical authorities for months that individuals infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, showing no signs of the disease. The administrative staff are in and out of the hospital each day, and also interact with clinicians.

CDC guidelines say that the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to limit face-to-face contact with others. It recommends staying at least 6 feet from other people, not gathering in groups and staying out of crowded places. The CDC also recommends using face masks in setting where social distancing is difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

The CDC also issued specific guidelines for hospitals, and emphasized that they should ensure their staff are trained, equipped and capable of practices needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility. It also said hospitals will also need to ensure their plans comply with applicable state and federal regulations.

The dance party played out as if none of those recommendations existed.

The video shows Allen holding a boom box blaring Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and leading a parade of 16 staffers past clinical staff wearing hospital scrubs and into a small office space where they continue to dance in close proximity with one another, none maintaining the CDC’s recommended distances, or wearing masks.

Three minutes into the video one of the staff members finally notes, “there are too many people in the room,” and the dance breaks up.

In his statement, DeFazio said he understood wanting to boost morale for employees, but suggested there are better ways that maintain safety protocols and set a good example for veterans and frontline healthcare workers.

“Simply put, we need to see stronger leadership from him moving forward,” DeFazio wrote.

U.S. senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, offered similar reactions. Wyden said the dance party “flew in the face of safe practices and put vulnerable veterans and people who care for them at needless risk.” He said he would be following up to make sure those safe practices were adhered to.

Merkley’s statement said “the only way we’re going to beat this virus—especially among high-risk populations, like veterans with underlying medical conditions—is by rigorously adhering to the guidance intended to reduce the spread.”

Allen sent a private email to community leaders Monday that was leaked to The News-Review in Roseburg.

“I would like to begin with an apology if this video offended anyone, it was not a dance party. It was meant to bring a small amount of stress relief and happiness to the Staff at the Roseburg VA Pathology and Laboratory Department,” Allen wrote.

He said the group was dancing to honor lab staff, who he called “unsung heroes,” during National Laboratory Technician Week.

He said he will work with his staff to find safer ways to stay connected.

“At no time have I forgotten any of the staff or Veterans that have become infected by this virus,” Allen wrote. “I hold each and every one of them in my thoughts and prayers.”

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© 2020 The Oregonian