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State Psychiatric Hospitals Work to Contain Coronavirus

Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, Virginia is one of nine state psychiatric facilities in the Commonwealth. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM)
Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, Virginia is one of nine state psychiatric facilities in the Commonwealth. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM)

State psychiatric hospitals are starting to see cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, these include one confirmed staff case at Central State Hospital in Petersburg, and one resident case at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation about an hour from Richmond in Burkeville, Virginia. 

There’s also one confirmed staff case at Western State Hospital in Staunton and two staff cases at Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion. 

According to Meghan McGuire, spokesperson for Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, officials are working to identify people who’ve been in close contact with those infected. 

Facilities are following CDC guidance that requires patients to remain in a designated area at all times, and McGuire says they are also working on plans to isolate patients with COVID-19. Most facilities are restricting visitor access, only allowing essential visitors. 

“Restricted visitation means that visitors will not be allowed in the facility at all, except for contractors and vendors whose mission is critical to the operations of the facility and lawyers representing a client currently admitted to the facility,” the policy states.

Some advocates are worried about what all of this means for patients, especially with a backlog of people ready for discharge but nowhere to go. More than 200 patients statewide are on what’s called an extraordinary barriers to discharge list, or EBL. That means they’ve been deemed “ready for discharge,” but have been waiting for weeks and sometimes months to leave, often due to lack of permanent supportive housing options in the community.

 “This is so much worse than just denial of civil rights,” Colleen Miller, Executive Director for the Disability Law Center of Virginia, told VPM. “This could end up killing people.”

The Disability Law Center of Virginia is the watchdog agency for these facilities. They normally provide in-person, on-site monitoring. Miller says they’re trying to set up a remote monitoring option now.

“We are trying to make arrangements with the state for some way for the residents to be able to contact us, for us to have some kind of camera access to facilities,” Miller said.

McGuire says the department is meeting with the Disability Law Center this week to strategize about how to facilitate their request, while maintaining the health and safety of staff and patients, and minimizing risk of exposure to COVID-19.

According to McGuire, 72 people on the EBL were discharged between March 1st and April 3, along with 666 overall discharges. That still leaves 216 people on the EBL at the end of March. Most of those who’ve recently been discharged are now in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains high.

“We are also taking every opportunity to decompress our hospital census and rapidly arrange for community-based services for those who can be safely discharged because living in a congregate setting can increase risk, including the EBL but not limited to it,” McGuire wrote in an email to VPM.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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