The novel coronavirus had only begun sweeping through Mississippi in March when the Panola Medical Center’s Crossroads Behavioral Health Center in Batesville assigned a woman in her mid-80s to Dr. Katherine Pannel, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating elderly patients. Though the woman was there for psychiatric treatment, the doctor noticed that she also exhibited most of the symptoms of COVID-19: a cough, chills, sore throat, fatigue and fever.
Pannel, who was the medical director for the center’s Geriatric Psychiatry Unit, agreed with the woman’s assigned nurse practitioner that she needed a COVID-19 test.
The psychiatrist was still waiting for the woman’s test results 10 days later when the hospital asked her to admit four new patients to the unit where the potential novel coronavirus patient remained. Pannel refused to do so, believing she was following protocol by quarantining the woman, along with those who had already shared the unit with her, until test results came back.
A hospital CEO fired her later that day, she alleges in a new lawsuit.
“Dr. Pannel declined to admit those patients because to do so would risk that the new patients would be infected with COVID-19,” reads the lawsuit, which Pannel filed in the Circuit Court of Panola County’s Second Judicial District on April 24. “Dr. Pannel was exercising sound medical judgment in the face of dangerous demands from non-medical management.”
Pannel provided the Mississippi Free Press with a copy of the lawsuit, but said her lawyer has advised her not speak to the press about her firing for now.
She is a member of the Mississippi State Medical Association COVID-19 taskforce and “shared specialized knowledge of protocols and precautions for COVID-19 with her colleagues” at Panola Medical, the suit claims.
Pannel alleges that Mark Schneider, the hospital’s co-owner, contacted the psychiatrist “within hours of her declining to admit the four new patients” and “notified her that she was terminated from her position as of April 1, 2020.” Schneider is the CEO of Vizion Health, a North Carolina-based company that owns part of Panola Medical.
The elderly woman’s coronavirus test results, which turned out to be negative, did not come back until four days after Pannel’s firing. Early on during the outbreak, only the Mississippi State Department of Health lab in Jackson could process the tests, and patients often waited one to two weeks for results. There are now dozens of labs throughout the state, and though tests are still limited, most results now arrive within days if not sooner.
Pannel’s lawsuit alleges that the defendants “violated Mississippi public policy by discharging and causing the discharge of Dr. Pannel because she declined to endanger patients by admitting them to a unit where a patient might have been infected by COVID-19.”
“Defendants’ actions are of the sort which evoke outrage or revulsion in a civilized society,” the lawsuit reads.
‘Good Luck Out There’
About a week after Pannel’s firing though, Vizion Health released a press statement saying that it was taking precautions and making adjustments at its facilities nationwide in light of the virus’ spread. In the statement, Schneider, the CEO Pannel claims fired her, praised his company’s medical employees throughout the country for taking proactive steps to stop the novel coronavirus’ spread in their facilities.
“Our response to the Coronavirus brings out the best in our employees and our colleagues,” Schneider said in that statement. “We have a transparent management style and encourage our staff to communicate best practices among our facilities. The phrase, ‘We’re all in this together’ has never been more apt. I’m very fortunate and proud to be associated with them. We will experience very difficult times ahead which will surely test our mettle. Good luck out there and stay safe.”
Despite not mentioning any other Vizion facilities by name, the company singled out the Batesville facility where Pannel worked in the statement.
“Since Crossroads Behavioral Health in Batesville MS provides adult and geriatric services, they are medically clearing all visitors, patients and employees entering the building. All facilities are keeping in close contact with their state and local public health and emergency management organizations on a daily basis,” Vizio claimed, without referencing Pannel nor her firing.
Neither Panola Medical nor Vizion responded to a request for comment for this story.
Pannel Not Alone
Other medical centers have stirred controversy across the country for firing medical staff who spoke up about a lack of personal protective equipment or similarly pushed back against what they considered unsafe hospital procedures in the face of the pandemic.
Last month, another North Mississippi physician, Dr. Samantha Houston, filed a lawsuit against Baptist Memorial-North Mississippi hospital in Oxford, alleging the hospital fired her after she spoke up about the need for healthcare workers to acquire and wear N95 face masks.
Pannel’s lawsuit alleges that the Panola County hospital, Schneider and several other unnamed defendants “engaged in a civil conspiracy to terminate (her) contract in breach of the agreement” and caused her to suffer a loss of income.
The psychiatrist is asking for compensation damages “for the injury to her reputation,” “for mental anxiety and emotional distress,” and for attorney’s fees.
Panola County now has 42 confirmed COVID-19 cases and two known deaths. Statewide, the number of known cases rose to 8,424 today, while the death toll reached 374.
The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.