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State-run mental hospitals see smaller toll from COVID-19, but ‘the threat has not dissipated’

None of the 41 patients or staff at the state’s 7 facilities who have tested positive have died, though five new cases were reported on Tuesday.

Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, in Dunning on the Northwest Side, has seen the most cases, with 11 staff members and seven patients testing positive for COVID-19.
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While COVID-19 has devastated congregate facilities like nursing homes and developmental centers in Illinois, the story is far different at the state’s psychiatric hospitals where just over 1% of patients and staff have tested positive for the disease.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Human Services reported that 41 of the 4,034 people who live and work at those seven hospitals had contracted the virus, including 13 patients and 28 staffers. None have died, though five new cases were reported on Tuesday.

There have, however, been nine deaths of patients since late January, according to a department spokesman, who declined to release their causes of death.

In total, 33 of the recorded coronavirus cases were at the two facilities located in Cook County. Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, in Dunning on the Northwest Side, has seen the most, with 11 staff members and seven patients testing positive. That first case was identified on April 8, a day before Chicago-Read and two other state facilities lifted a hold on new admissions that was put in place on March 14 “to appropriately respond to COVID-19 in a manner that ensures the safety” of patients and staff members.

Meanwhile, the seven state-operated centers treating patients with developmental disabilities have recorded 593 total cases, with eight patients and four staffers succumbing to the disease. More than 10% of patients and staffers at those facilities have tested positive.

Though Illinois’ psychiatric hospitals have so far staved off more widespread infections, the coronavirus has torn through mental health facilities in other states. In New York, 38 of the 317 psychiatric inpatients that have tested positive for coronavirus have died, according to the state Office of Mental Health.

Meghan Powers, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said a series of safeguards have been put in place to protect against similar outbreaks at Illinois’ facilities. On March 12, temperature checkpoints were established for staff members, non-essential visits and transfers were halted, Powers said. In addition, newly admitted patients were placed under observation and tested before being brought into the general population. Isolation units have also been constructed “in the event that a quarantine becomes necessary.”

“We believe that these measures, taken early and along with all of the infection control protocols that our hospitals rigorously follow, have allowed us to be as prepared as possible for any outbreak that may still come,” said Powers.

When a patient presents symptoms or tests positive, all other patients housed on the same unit are also offered testing, she added. After spending two weeks in isolation, a patient with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 must test negative twice before returning to the general population. Staff members are also offered testing if they develop a fever or symptoms consistent with the coronavirus before being sent home.

Workers reassured

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents employees at the state-run facilities, said workers are “obviously reassured that to this point infection rates in the state mental health centers are significantly lower than in other congregate settings.”

“It’s difficult to say for certain, but one reason may be that the type of care needed by patients in the mental health centers is generally less involved than those in state developmental centers, who often need assistance with eating, bathing, toileting and dressing,” said Lindall.

“Psychiatric patients are significantly more likely to understand and remember the importance of practices like hand-washing and distancing,” he added. “And individuals in the developmental centers are also more likely to be medically fragile.”

In addition to informing staff members, patients and their family members of new cases at psychiatric facilities, inpatients are given daily updates in small group settings and offered one-on-one therapy sessions.

“Such information is helpful in reducing anxiety and stress among this vulnerable population,” Powers noted.

For now, Lindall said the union remains focused on ensuring that its members “have sufficient personal protective equipment, universal access to testing and staffing practices that limit exposure and maximize distancing.

“Of course we’re concerned with trying to make the [mental health centers] even safer. And considering that the facilities continue intake of patients in mental health crisis, the threat has not dissipated.”