'It's Heartbreaking': Waiting Out Coronavirus From Inside A Locked Psychiatric Facility

Annie Felix visits her son, Andrew, from the other side of his window. (Robert Garrova/LAist)

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We've all heard about how the coronavirus pandemic prevented people from visiting their loved ones in nursing homes. The same thing has happened to another community: those with family members in locked psychiatric facilities.

Annie Felix is part of the latter group. Her son, whom she identifies as Andrew R., is at La Casa mental health rehabilitation center in Long Beach.

Growing up, Andrew was as normal a teenager as any, she said. He played drums, guitar and piano, had lots of friends, went surfing.

But at the age of 15, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.

"Now there's no way he can accomplish any of those things in the condition he is at this time," Felix said.


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She says roughly over the past decade, Andrew had more than a dozen hospital visits, 10 of which resulted in inpatient stays.

In 2014, things reached a breaking point.

"My doctor told me that I couldn't have him at home anymore because it was affecting my health," Felix said.

Last year, Felix said she was finally able to convince a hospital that Andrew needed to be treated at a locked facility, and he ended up at La Casa.

At first Felix visited her son three times a week, she said. They were long visits, usually about two hours. Sometimes she'd bring a guitar and he'd strum on it.

Then COVID-19 hit and La Casa was forced to shut its doors to visitors.

HEART BREAK AND A HALF-VISIT

Now, Felix trudges through the bushes to get to her son's parking lot-facing window so she can see him. On a recent day, Andrew's face appeared behind the large tinted glass.

"I miss you," Felix said, her voice cutting through the glass to her son. "Honey, I miss you."

Felix said she had a scare recently when she learned that Andrew's new roommate had tested positive for COVID-19. Andrew's test came back negative.

As of early July, the city of Long Beach said there had been a total of 19 coronavirus cases among the nearly 200 patients at La Casa. There was one COVID-19-related death at the facility.

"Maybe skilled nursing facilities is what you may hear about, but I feel like there's a lot of concern for any kind of population that's living in close contact," said Dr. Anissa Davis, the Long Beach Health Officer.

Davis said mental health facilities like La Casa can sometimes have different things to think about than nursing homes when it comes to keeping their clients safe from COVID-19. Patients living with a serious mental illness may struggle to comply with new rules imposed since COVID-19, like staying in their room or wearing masks.

So far, there have been five coronavirus outbreaks at Long Beach mental health facilities, according to the city. An outbreak means at least one resident has tested positive.

Annie Felix said COVID-19 has meant isolation and reduced group activities for her son. Those setbacks in Andrew's treatment are especially hard because it took so much work just to get Andrew into a facility like La Casa.

"It's very heartbreaking," Felix said, adding that she doesn't quite know how it feels to Andrew.

"When I talked to him through the window when he was first isolated, he asked me, 'Mom, why are they doing this? Am I going to get sick?'" she said.

NO RE-OPENING IN SITE

As of early July, the facility's last batch of COVID-19 tests all came back negative, said David Heffron, vice president of operations at Telecare Corp., which runs La Casa.

But he's not sure when the facility will be able to re-open to visitors, especially since L.A. County is seeing a surge of new cases.

"Clearly we want our clients to be able to be with their families as much as they want to be," Heffron said. "But until it's safe enough and we're given some recommendations from the CDC or the public health folks, we're not doing that yet."

So for now, Felix said she'll continue to visit her son from the other side of his darkened window. Like so many people across Southern California with family members in locked psychiatric facilities, she'll have to keep waiting out the pandemic in limbo.