A COVID-19 outbreak has infected 18 patients and 11 employees at Central State Hospital, all within one building for long-term care of people with mental illness at the state mental institution near Petersburg.
The outbreak at Central State is the latest manifestation of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nine patients and one employee at Virginia’s behavioral health institutions since mid-summer. As of Monday, the state institutions have 57 active cases among staff and patients, with 93 tests pending and 366 people recovered from the virus.
“It sounds very alarming,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, whose district includes the hospital and many of its employees.
A state behavioral health spokesperson said the outbreak at Central State, based in Dinwiddie County, is confined to Building 95, used for patients who require long-term treatment of mental illness. The state is awaiting COVID-19 test results for an additional 31 employees and three patients.
“The health and safety of both patients and staff remain our number one priority,” said Lauren Cunningham, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
“We cannot reveal any further details about those who have tested positive,” Cunningham said in an email on Monday. She added, “The staff members who have tested positive are now self-quarantined, and the patients who have tested positive are quarantined within the facility.”
Since July, COVID-19 outbreaks have killed nine patients at Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Nottoway County, about 55 miles from Richmond, and a nurse at Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Danville. Commissioner of Behavioral Health Alison Land temporarily stopped admissions at four facilities to reduce pressure on institutions already operating near or in some cases beyond their capacity.
Those four facilities are Piedmont, Southern Virginia, the Commonwealth Center for Children & Adolescents in Staunton and Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Falls Church.
“We have not halted admissions at Central State, but we are working closely with [the Virginia Department of Health] and following their guidelines for admissions,” Cunningham said.
The state subsequently has lifted the moratorium on admissions at Piedmont, Southern Virginia and Northern Virginia, while allowing a limited reopening at the Commonwealth Center, which has had 27 employees test positive . All have recovered, but Cunningham said the hospital “has been particularly challenged by reduced staffing numbers throughout the outbreak, so we are working closely with CCCA to increase the workforce and ensure it has the resources it needs .”
Cunningham said the state system has taken extensive precautions since mid-March to prevent the entry and spread of COVID-19 at state institutions. Those precautions include limits on visits to patients and screening for anyone entering buildings at the institutions.
However, Aird said she heard from employees on Monday that the hospital has given some patients permission to leave and return to the facility, while making it optional for patients to wear protective masks.
“I have serious questions now about some of the processes that are being utilized,” she said.
The state defended its practice of issuing community passes under guidelines that “include weighing the risks and benefits of the passes since community visits can help facilitate safe discharges,” Cunningham said in response to Aird’s concerns.
She added that the hospital screens staff and patients daily, including taking their temperatures.
“Central State also weighs the patient’s ability to adhere to hygiene and social distancing recommendations, and their willingness to wear a mask,” Cunningham said, adding, “But we cannot force them, with the exception of specialty programs like the work program, which is part of their contract.”