Staffing shortages leads to temporary state mental hospital shutdown

Free Press wire reports | 7/15/2021, 6 p.m.
Virginia temporarily closed admissions at five mental hospitals last week amid a staffing crisis. The move will allow the hospitals ...
Ms. Land

Virginia temporarily closed admissions at five mental hospitals last week amid a staffing crisis. The move will allow the hospitals to reduce the number of patients through attrition, not discharges, until there are enough employees to care for patients safely, an official said.

Five of the state’s eight facilities for adults are affected: Central State Hospital near Petersburg, Eastern State Hospital near Williamsburg, Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, Western State Hospital in Staunton and Catawba Hospital near Roanoke.

“Despite our aggressive recruiting and retention strategies, state hospitals continue to lose staff while admissions continue to rise,” said Alison Land, state commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

“It is no longer feasible to operate all state beds in a safe and therapeutic environment,” she added in a message announcing the step.

Since July 1, 63 patients and employees have been injured at the state’s mental hospitals because of the shortage, Ms. Land said.

“The challenges faced by the state hospitals are now an immediate crisis for two reasons,” Ms. Land said. “First, the level of dangerousness is unprecedented and second, recent admissions are occur- ring in an environment that is no longer adequately staffed.”

Virginia’s behavioral health institutions have struggled with a surge of people in psychiatric crisis since the “bed of last resort” law enacted in 2014 prevented the release of people from emergency custody if they pose a threat to themselves or others. Admissions under temporary detention orders have increased by almost 400 percent at state mental hospitals since 2013.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents, the state’s only psychiatric facility for youths, is operating only 18 of its 48 beds because it doesn’t have enough employees to care for more patients.

The closures will put pressure on private psychiatric facilities. Virginia will need all available private beds for temporary detention to be open, even for challenging patients, Ms. Land said.

“In addition, the commonwealth needs every possible step-down and long-term care facility to be ready to accept patients who are ready for discharge from state facilities,” she said.

The state is accelerating efforts to discharge patients who are ready, but Ms. Land said it is complicated by a lack of adequate community programs and services to accept them.

These hospitals have operated with high numbers of patients for years and the pandemic has made it tougher, Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, said in a statement.

Gov. Northam will propose putting federal American Rescue Plan funding toward “boosting staff salaries, hiring critical workers and ensuring the well-being of patients and staff,” Ms. Yarmosky said.