A picture of a young patient wearing a mask with a plastic equipment bag placed over her head went viral this week, drawing thousands of comments blasting the hospital in disapproval of using the bag to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – Now, the hospital has issued a statement in response to the image. 

The Odessa Accountability Project, which is a citizen-led ‘watch dog’ organization, posted the picture of the young patient sitting in a wheelchair, with a large plastic bag marked “equipment cover” pulled far down over her head to her waist. 

The post stated that staff at Medical Center Hospital (MCH) in Odessa placed the bag over her head for roughly 30 minutes, saying she was “humiliated” and “dehumanized” as the staff used it while she was transported through the hospital. 

“This 17-year-old young lady went to the emergency room in Odessa, COVID positive, because she couldn’t breathe.  She was humiliated and dehumanized by the staff. Aside from the warning on the bag not to place this over your head, as it could cause suffocation, this is just wrong.  The bag is labeled equipment cover and has your typical warning on it.  The girl’s mother said she complained of not being able to breathe well, taking off the mask, and was asked to put it back on.” 

The post went viral, drawing thousands of comments from local citizens and coverage from non-local groups, some of which the Accountability Project said in a follow-up statement did not accurately portray the issue from what was presently known.  

“There have been a lot of groups and news sources outside our area that have indicated that this is a widespread problem.  We do not know that this is a widespread problem.  The hospital to our knowledge is not sticking equipment bags over all it’s COVID-19 patients’ heads.  Some of the news sources reporting from the information in my story are exaggerating the facts into a version of events that I do not represent nor approve of,” the Accountability Project wrote. 

The follow-up statement went on to say that they had unfairly gone ahead with the story before allowing the hospital to fix the issue and said that the hospital would be meeting with the young patient’s mother to work on a resolution. 

MCH issued a press release regarding the issue on Thursday after meeting with the patient’s mother, with MCH CEO Russell Tippin stating that the hospital’s top priority will always be the safety and care of their patients, and to listen to their experiences and make sure they are comfortable. 

MCH Press Release Regarding Controversial Image

However, the press release has quickly drawn hundreds of comments from residents online, saying the press release erroneously calls the plastic bag a “patient drape” which is a type of personal protective gear hospitals use and didn’t mention that any corrective actions would be taken to ensure the issue wouldn’t happen again.

In addition, several more images of patients in equipment bags have now surfaced, with people saying their family member was mistreated and made to think they had no choice but to wear the bag – and further criticizing and condemning the press release which claimed only patients who are not wearing or able to wear masks would need to use the plastic covering. Every image that has surfaced of a patient wearing the plastic equipment bag was also wearing a mask within the bag. 

The online coverage of the issue, while varied, has also sparked another major issue, with numerous death and bomb threats being called into the hospital, aimed at medical staff. 

“Due to the viral nature of this photo, our hospital and staff have received numerous threatening phone calls, including threats on their lives, their family’s lives, and even threats of bombing the hospital. The Ector County Hospital District Police Department is investigating these threats, and the FBI has been contacted,” the press release says. 

Covering COVID-19 patients before transporting through crowded areas such as in hallways and elevators is indicated to be a fairly common practice at the hospital, but it is unclear if the equipment bags were only being used in several isolated instances or if there was a proper type of medical protective drape being used in most cases. 

While there are concerns that patients are not being advised that the bag is optional, the press release also stated the “patient and/or guardian has the right to refuse the form of protection.” 

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.