Shootings at two South Carolina hospitals in less than 24 hours have reignited discussions this week about whether state laws, which do little to deter patients from lashing out at health care workers, should be reformed.
The Regional Medical Center of Orangeburg on Wednesday and the Laurens County Memorial Hospital in Clinton on Thursday both reported shootings behind hospital doors. Three people were injured, at least one of them critically, between the two shootings. Suspects were almost immediately apprehended in both cases.
The S.C. Hospital Association has since at least 2016 been pushing for legislation that would strengthen penalties against anyone who assaults a health care worker on the job or someone in a health care facility.
None of them have gone anywhere.
Part of the reason behind that legislative push: South Carolina is one of three states that lacks any enhanced penalty for violence against health care workers, according to a 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago in November drew national attention when a police officer and two employees were shot and killed. The attack prompted a number of hospitals nationwide to review and upgrade existing security practices to emergency rooms and clinics.
South Carolina was not among them. And the apparent lack of appetite among state lawmakers to pass legislation that would extend additional protections in these settings has been a recurring point of frustration for health professionals in South Carolina.
'In harm's way'
On Wednesday, just before 9 a.m., at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, a gunman who police said was a patient there the same morning walked into the hospital’s emergency department and opened fire, critically injuring a nurse.
The man accused in the shooting, 23-year-old Abrian Dayquan Sabb, faces attempted murder, first-degree burglary and two weapons charges. He was denied bail during a bond hearing Thursday afternoon.
Sabb's father, also named Abrian Sabb, spoke about his son's history of mental illness following the hearing.
The father said his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia about two years ago and that the family has faced endless red tape and financial difficulties in getting him treated.
The elder Sabb said he didn't excuse his son but also laid blame on mental health and hospital officials who he said neglected to take his son's condition seriously enough.
"I think that is a shame in 2019 in this country that young people are being neglected the way that they are, turned away when they are coming and crying for help," the father said. "And then after everything (goes) bad we want to say, 'oh he's a killer or he's a murderer' — that's not right."
On Thursday, a little after 2 a.m., at the Laurens County Memorial Hospital in Clinton, a police officer was shot after trying to confront a man who brought a gun into the building. The Greenville Health Authority Police Department officer, who has since been treated and released, shot back, hitting the man in the arm. Prisma Health, which owns the hospital, said in a statement that the State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the incident.
“I am proud to count each one of them as part of the Prisma Health family. I’m especially grateful to the officer for his quick action which helped ensure the safety of our patients, team members and visitors,” Justin Benfield, a regional chief operating officer for Prisma Health–Upstate, said in the statement.
SLED identified the suspect in the Laurens County hospital shooting as 27-year-old Kevin Boyce Patterson.
He has been charged with one count each of attempted murder, kidnapping and pointing and presenting a firearm, SLED stated.
The shootings are extreme examples of the types of violence health care workers see. Incidents more often come in the form of yelling, throwing things or lashing out physically. Still, health care workers are four times more likely to be assaulted than their peers in other industries, according to The Joint Commission.
There’s been reluctance in the S.C. Legislature to reinstate enhanced penalties that were removed as part of sentencing reform in 2010. Opponents in the Legislature have argued it would be inappropriate to treat these crimes differently based only upon the setting in which they occur.
But S.C. Hospital Association spokesman Schipp Ames argues health care facilities are a different working environment than anywhere else.
“They’re open to patients and visitors. We have open facilities people can come in and out of. We have sensitive actions with people,” he said. “Why are we not treating them differently?”
The idea, Ames said, is to put enhanced penalties in hospitals that would establish them as designated safe zones.
Senate Labor Commerce and Industry Chairman Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, is the main sponsor for all of the Senate bills.
"It's unfortunate when we have tragedies like this that highlight the need for what health care workers deal with day in and day out."
Alexander said nurses and others are injured all the time, but it doesn't make the news.
"This demonstrates they're in harm's way on a regular basis.”
Hospitals, in turn, make their own judgments about what security measures are appropriate.
The Medical University of South Carolina briefly considered installing metal detectors but found the move would be cost-prohibitive.
MUSC would have to spend $980,000 per year to staff the detectors, Department of Public Safety Chief Kevin Kerley said last year. There are about two dozen entrances to the hospital’s buildings.
Because of how sprawling the facilities tend to be, protecting them around-the-clock can be challenging.
Only 8 percent of hospitals had metal detectors at their doors in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Roper St. Francis CEO Lorraine Lutton told her employees in an email Thursday "my heart hurts this morning for our colleagues." The local hospital system has made safety-related changes in the last year, including locking access points to their hospitals at 9 p.m. and increasing security measures for visitors.
"Our Emergency Management team has been working with local law enforcement to better understand our facilities and coordinate response plans," Lutton wrote in the email. "Every single one of us deserves to return home after work unharmed, and we are committed to keeping you safe."
Dr. Pat Cawley, CEO of MUSC Health, said leadership would be looking at the two shootings this week to see what opportunities there might be for better safety protocols at the hospital system.
"Any time something comes this close to home, we're going to take a review," Cawley said.
He said his gut told him no changes would be needed, however. There has not been a gun-related incident at MUSC in recent memory.
Cawley, a member of the hospital association board, said MUSC would support higher penalties for attacking health care workers. Incidents of violence at hospitals have been increasingly common in recent years, he said. And most are not due to mental health disorders or drugs.
"It turns out that a significant portion of these violent acts is simply out of anger," Cawley said.
Gregory Yee contributed to this report.