A Fairfax County psychiatrist resigned Friday over what he called inadequate safeguards against novel coronavirus infection from patients at the county’s Merrifield Center for mental health treatment.

Jason Williams, who for two years has treated patients for the county’s Community Services Boardis among a growing number of health-care professionals to voice concern over continued interactions with patients without clear guidance. He said psychiatrists and other workers have been meeting with patients inside small counseling rooms, without masks or other protective gear.

“The current practice of allowing staff (doctors, clinicians, law enforcement, etc.) at the CSB Emergency Services (ES) to see patients, public, etc. in tiny interview rooms over and over, and with no protective masks of any kind, is HIGHLY problematic, dangerous, and contributing to the asymptomatic transmission of the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19,” Williams said in a letter to county officials, a copy of which he provided to The Washington Post.

“At Emergency Services, we sometimes have multiple people using these small rooms at the same time, all two or three feet away from each other,” the letter said.

Local government officials have tried to balance those concerns with the need to keep essential operations running while the rest of the region is at a virtual standstill.

In Fairfax — which on Saturday morning had reported a total of 22 cases of coronavirus infection — county officials said they’ve taken several measures to ensure safety for its 12,000 employees.

Among them: screening people who enter the Merrifield Center for coronavirus symptoms, encouraging employees who can telework to do so and working to supply workers with hand sanitizer, which has been on short supply.

The county is also granting up to two weeks of paid administrative leave to employees who miss work for coronavirus-related reasons, officials said in a statement.

“Fairfax County is committed to providing essential services to our community while maintaining employee safety,” the statement said. “Departments are instructed to make every effort to maximize telework, including identifying tasks that may be completed from home for employees who do not otherwise perform work that lends itself to being done remotely.”

But those measures have done little to ease the concerns of some workers in jobs that require contact with the public or working in close quarters with colleagues.
At the Merrifield Center, several workers said they’ve been worried about being infected by patients, because some of their history of exposure to the virus has been made difficult to determine by their mental condition.

“Some people come in with a crisis, where they’re talking and they’re animated and it’s hard to remain seated,” said one employee who interacts with those patients and who, like several others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing employment.

“It is a challenge to minimize various forms of contact with someone who could have been exposed to this pathogen,” that employee said.

Williams said the county health department has been unresponsive to his concerns and ignored his suggestion that a bulk of the in-person assessments with patients meant to determine their well-being take place outdoors.

He formally quit on Friday, telling county health director Gloria Addo-Ayensu in his farewell email that, “If along with the other doctors working under these conditions, we get the virus and fall ill, we will not be able to help those who need help.”

“We are on the front line of defense, and we are given nothing to protect ourselves from airborne droplets,” he wrote.

Williams said he stopped reporting to work last weekend after, during a 16-hour Sunday shift, he noticed that none of the patients who entered the building had been screened, even though the county issued a protocol a few days earlier for that to happen.

The county disputed his assertion, saying screening does take place.

Williams said he wants to be “on the front line” helping patients who either have contracted the virus or who are experiencing mental trauma because of it.

“I just want to make sure I’m safe and stay safe so I can help as many people as possible and not be part of the problem,” he said.