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Oregon State Hospital suspends in-person visits after patient dies of suspected fentanyl overdose

The psychiatric program's interim director emailed staff citing a ‘significant incident’ involving contraband, but did not mention the patient's death
Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, on Nov. 21, 2023. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
May 27, 2024

A patient at Oregon State Hospital died of a suspected fentanyl overdose on Friday, and Oregon State Police are investigating the circumstances, police said. 

A spokesperson for the police agency confirmed the investigation to the Capital Chronicle late Friday but had no other details. Separately, the Oregon State Hospital sent a memo to staff on Friday and announced it is temporarily halting in-person patient visits with friends and family. The state-run psychiatric hospital in Salem has more than 600 patients. 

“Because of a significant incident related to passing of contraband from a visitor to a patient, we are pausing in-person visitation effective immediately,” the hospital’s interim superintendent, Sara Walker, wrote in a Friday email to staffers. 

Larry Bingham, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the hospital, declined to comment about the incident when asked about the overdose. 

The case is the latest in a string of incidents that have temporarily put the state hospital in the crosshairs of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which inspects hospitals that receive federal funding. A federal report released earlier this month flagged problems that included blind spots in the security camera system, a failure to adequately monitor patients and the distribution of condoms to patients even though they aren’t allowed to have sex with each other. The hospital also has overhauled how it stores its emergency life-saving equipment after federal officials inspected the facility following a patient death shortly after the patient’s admission. Inspectors found that the critical equipment was stored in a disorganized way.

Walker’s memo did not mention that the incident involved a suspected fentanyl overdose nor that police are investigating. 

“This was a decision the executive team did not make lightly,” Walker’s message said. “We know how important in-person visits are to patients and those who love them, and we know we are making the decision on a Friday before a holiday weekend.”

Walker did not say when visits would resume. She said the pause will be “as short as we can” while the hospital reviews visitation policies and procedures to ensure in-person visits are safe for patients, families and staff. 

Walker directed staff to notify patients and visitors with a prepared script that apologized for the suspension. Patients still have access to video visits. 

The restrictions come after patients and family have enjoyed more freedom to have in-person visits after pandemic-era restrictions were fully lifted in 2023. 

The easy availability of fentanyl in Oregon has fueled an overdose crisis in Oregon, with people consuming the powerful drug in public. That’s led to the Legislature recriminalizing possession of illegal drugs. A new law signed by Gov. Tina Kotek will lead to new programs throughout the state to encourage people to enter treatment and avoid court charges for drug possession. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.