Report: Va. mental hospitals reported uptick in deaths during pandemic

A report from the nonprofit watchdog group Disability Law Center of Virginia shows the number of reported deaths rose slightly at state-run mental hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic.

“While it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for a number of these deaths, the vast majority of deaths in state facilities were the result of other long-term medical conditions,” the report said.

The center’s concern is that more and more people who have complicated medical issues, or are terminally ill, are ending up in mental hospitals when they should be in places like nursing homes or assisted living centers.

“We are particularly concerned about individuals’ ability to access critical, offsite medical services from a specialist,” the report said.

The report is based on incident reports from:

• Catawba Hospital (CAT)
• Central State Hospital (CSH)
• Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents (CCCA)
• Eastern State Hospital (ESH)
• Hiram Davis Medical Center (HDMC)
• Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute (NVMHI)
• Piedmont Geriatric Hospital (PGH)
• Southeastern Virginia Training Center (SEVTC)
• Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute (SVMHI)
• Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute (SWVMHI)
• Western State Hospital (WSH)

The report said the pandemic appears to have stranded some people in mental hospitals because nursing homes and other facilities stopped admitting new residents during the worst of the crisis.

“When facilities did begin having outbreaks, they were sometimes able to halt admissions until it was safe. On the other hand, the pandemic appears to have caused more people — particularly geriatric residents — to get ‘stuck’ in state facilities, as nursing homes, assisted living facilities and even some apartments ‘froze’ admissions,” the report said.

“While these ‘freezes’ were intended to protect people with disabilities, they ultimately trapped many of these individuals in [Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services] facilities that were not necessarily designed for medically complex individuals, and may not have been able to provide the appropriate level of care.”

Disability Law Center of Virginia raised questions about how incidents are being reported as well.

“While reporting compliance increased in FY 20, we still believe some facilities are under-reporting incidents. It is also clear that the reports they do submit are vague, incomplete, and often late,” the report said. “Poor reporting practices limit the ability of watchdog organizations, including dLCV, the Office of the State Inspector General, and DBHDS itself to fully monitor and assess conditions at DBHDS-Operated Facilities. It also violates the law.”

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter and anchor at WTOP.

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