A second employee of Central State Hospital has died from COVID-19, after contracting the coronavirus disease in the community, not the state behavioral health facility.
A member of the hospital’s administrative staff died of complications from the virus in mid-September — the third employee of Virginia’s behavioral health institutions to succumb to a disease that also has killed 25 patients since the pandemic began 19 months ago.
“Our hearts go out to this person’s family and co-workers during this difficult time,” said Lauren Cunningham, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. “We can confirm this person was a member of the hospital administrative staff and that this was a community-acquired case of COVID-19, not acquired in the facility.”
However, three other employees are infected with COVID-19 at Central State, which shares a sprawling campus outside of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County with Hiram W. Davis Medical Center, where another employee has tested positive for the disease.
Statewide, 30 employees and five patients have tested positive for the coronavirus disease at state-run behavioral health facilities, with 13 tests pending, as of Thursday.
The biggest hot spot is Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, about 50 miles southwest of Richmond in Nottoway County. Nine employees and two patients have tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital, where 15 patients died earlier in the pandemic, the most in any state-owned behavioral health facility.
Piedmont is adjacent to the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, a state facility for civilly committed sex offenders that has recorded six deaths from COVID-19 during the pandemic. Currently, three employees of the center are infected with the coronavirus.
Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute, which has had six patients die from COVID-19, currently has six employees with the disease. The institute is located in Marion, the seat of Smyth County.
The other confirmed cases include: three employees at Southeast Virginia Training Center, a facility in Chesapeake for patients with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities; two employees and two patients at Eastern State Hospital near Williamsburg; two employees at Catawba Hospital near Roanoke; and one employee and one patient at Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Danville.
A nurse at the institution in Danville was the first employee to die from COVID-19 at a state behavioral health facility. She died in September, 2020, followed by a psychiatric technician at Central State in early March.
Cunningham said that 74% of employees at state facilities were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of the end of last week, including 67% of staff at Central State. Under an executive directive from Gov. Ralph Northam, all state employees were required to prove their vaccination status by Sept. 1 and then submit to weekly testing if they choose to remain unvaccinated.
“Facility-based employees are tested on-site to meet the testing mandate,” she said.
The pandemic has contributed to a staffing shortage at Virginia mental hospitals and other behavioral health facilities, along with low pay and difficult working conditions. Behavioral Health Commissioner Alison Land abruptly halted admissions at five facilities on July 9 — and a sixth early in August — because they lacked adequate staff to care for patients safely.
All of the facilities have reopened, but with reduced capacity to ensure safe operations. Central State normally operates with 166 in its civil units — excluding the maximum security forensic unit — but currently has enough staff for 140. Last week, all of the available beds were full.
Eastern State, operating with 242 of its normal 302 beds, had only one unfilled on Oct. 4. Western State Hospital in Staunton also was operating at full capacity, currently at 177 beds instead of its normal 246 bed limit.
The Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents, the only state facility for young people, is so short of staff that it is operating only 18 beds instead of the normal 48-bed capacity at the hospital in Staunton. All of those beds were full last week.
The state is trying to ease crowding by releasing patients who are ready to go, but 226 patients remained in the hospitals on the “extraordinary barriers list” in August because they have nowhere to go in their communities even though they are clinically ready for release.
Northam and the General Assembly have provided $1.65 million in federal emergency aid in the current fiscal year to expand pilot programs to provide nursing care for patients with dementia who are ready for discharge from state hospitals.
Using federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act, they also allocated $5 million to pay for permanent supportive house in Northern Virginia to provide safe places to live for people leaving state institutions or avoiding admission by relying on community care.
The state also is trying to attract and retain employees with signing bonuses, using $45 million that Northam and the General Assembly appropriated from federal emergency aid during a special legislative session in August to ease the crisis.
Northam also has pledged to include $76.9 million for raises and other compensation in the first year of the two-year budget he will propose on Dec. 16, as well as money to continue the pilot programs for dementia patients.