A nurse at a state mental hospital in Danville has died of COVID-19, the first death of an employee at Virginia’s behavioral health institutions from coronavirus outbreaks that already had killed seven patients at a state geriatric hospital in Nottoway County.
The nurse, employed at the Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute, died on Saturday, according to a statement from the hospital, which said that “it is not yet known where the employee was exposed to the virus.”
“Our hearts go out to this person’s family and co-workers during this difficult time,” the hospital said in the statement.
The death came a month after Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute mistakenly advised employees that they would have to continue to work if they tested positive for COVID-19 as long as they didn’t show symptoms.
State behavioral health officials quickly disavowed the advisory, first reported by the Danville Register & Bee, as an erroneous interpretation of federal guidelines for health care employees who had been exposed to the virus, but not those who were confirmed positive.
“Nobody ever worked who was positive at Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute,” said Walton “Mitch” Mitchell, acting assistant commissioner of facilities for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Separately, a COVID-19 outbreak among staff at the Commonwealth Center for Children & Adolescents prompted the state on Wednesday to close admissions indefinitely at the Staunton facility, which is Virginia’s only state psychiatric hospital for children and the fourth institution to have admissions halted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Testing on Tuesday confirmed 20 employees and five patients with COVID-19, leaving the hospital with about 38% of staff available for patient care.
Alison Land, commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, said Wednesday that the hospital is able to separate infected patients and care for its current 25 residents. “However, with such extreme staffing challenges, it is not currently safe to accept new admissions,” she said.
Land said the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is working with community hospitals and other providers to take children and adolescents who otherwise would be admitted at the Commonwealth Center. It also is identifying current patients who could be transferred to less-intensive care by private providers.
“Our goal is to stabilize CCCA as quickly as possible so admissions can be reopened in the near future, but not before it is safe to do so,” the commissioner said in a memorandum to private providers of behavioral health services.
The employee death in Danville and staff outbreak in Staunton are the latest blows to a state behavioral health system that already is operating near — or in some cases beyond — its capacity.
“All of these hospitals are under incredible stress,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of a joint subcommittee on overhauling mental health services in Virginia.
Seven patients died in July at Piedmont Geriatric Hospital, which reopened to admissions last month after a COVID-19 outbreak infected 36 people — 13 employees and 23 patients. Currently, only one employee and no patients have tested positive for the disease at the facility in Nottoway, about 50 miles from Richmond.
Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute, based in Falls Church, also has restricted admissions. Currently, 20 employees and four patients have tested positive for the virus, not including 10 employees and 21 patients who have recovered from the disease.
Southern is the only other state facility to halt admissions because of a COVID-19 outbreak, primarily because of the hospital’s small size and interconnected layout. Currently, only one employee has tested positive and no patients, but eight employees and 12 patients have recovered from their COVID-19 infections.
State behavioral health officials say they are working with the local and state health departments on a plan to reopen the hospital to admissions.
Every institution in the state system has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including two facilities that care predominantly for patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities — Southeastern Virginia Training Center, based in Chesapeake, and Hiram Davis Medical Center, next to Central State Hospital outside of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County.
The system currently has 79 positive cases of COVID-19, with 50 tests pending and 233 recovered, in addition to the eight deaths.
The COVID-19 outbreaks have worsened an already severe shortage of beds at the institutions. Virginia’s adult mental hospitals were operating at 95% of their capacity on Wednesday, but four facilities that treat geriatric patients were operating at 106% of capacity.
The pandemic also has taken a severe toll on private providers of behavioral health services. Private providers have had 1,058 cases and 47 deaths, most of them involving people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.
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