Alison Land, commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, said Friday that she is closing admissions immediately at Central State Hospital near Petersburg, Eastern State Hospital near Williamsburg, Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in the Nottoway County town of Burkeville, Western State Hospital in Staunton and Catawba Hospital near Roanoke.
The temporary halt in admissions will allow the five hospitals to reduce the number of patients they are treating by attrition, rather than discharging them, until they have enough employees to care for them safely.
“Despite our aggressive recruiting and retention strategies, state hospitals continue to lose staff while admissions continue to rise,” Land said in a message on Friday. “It is no longer feasible to operate all state beds in a safe and therapeutic environment.”
The order represents a breaking point for Virginia’s behavioral health institutions, which have struggled to keep up with a surge in admissions of people in psychiatric crisis since the enactment of the so-called “bed of last resort” law in 2014 to prevent the release of people from emergency custody if they pose a threat to themselves or others.
Admissions of people under temporary detention orders have increased by almost 400% at state mental hospitals since 2013, the year that the 24-year-old son of state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, attacked his father and then killed himself less than 13 hours after being released from emergency custody because no bed was found for him at a private or public psychiatric facility.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has thrown the hospitals into a staffing crisis with 1,547 direct-care jobs vacant in a workforce of 5,500 — a job vacancy rate of 28%.
“It’s very frustrating,” Deeds said Friday. “It’s very disappointing, but we did see it coming.”
The halt of admissions at more than half of the state mental hospitals for adults alarms law enforcement officials who say they have been forced to keep mentally ill people in prolonged custody because they have nowhere to take them for treatment.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association for Chiefs of Police, warned Friday that if no psychiatric bed is available for people under emergency custody and temporary detention orders, “the only options are a jail bed or street release.”
“Neither is a viable or responsible option for the treatment and care of an individual in mental health crisis,” she said.