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COVID-19 cases among Missouri mental health workers continue to rise

COVID-19 cases among Missouri mental health workers continue to rise

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Original St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum approaches 150th anniversary

The newer patient facility, the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, is seen from the windows of the dome of the original building, the old St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum, on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen,

JEFFERSON CITY — Although COVID-19 transmissions have been relatively steady among patients and residents of state mental health facilities, the number of positive cases among workers continues to rise.

In mid-June, there were 105 employees at the Missouri Department of Mental Health who tested positive for the coronavirus. The agency reported Wednesday that the number has grown to 202.

By contrast, there were 51 patients and residents with the virus in mid-June, compared to 60 on Wednesday.

The department operates facilities across the state to care for people with psychiatric problems and developmental disabilities.

St. Louis-area facilities are among the hotspots, with 41 workers at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center testing positive, up from 20 in June.

The South County Habilitation Center reported 34 workers had tested positive, up from 28 in June. And the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center had 31 cases, up from 22 in June.

In April, labor union leaders who represent state workers said Gov. Mike Parson is not doing enough to protect employees during the pandemic.

From a lack of personal protective equipment for prison workers to insufficient technical support for office employees who are working from home, the union officials said the situation was putting front-line staffers in danger.

Debra Walker, an assistant director at the Department of Mental Health, said the agency continues to take steps to try and bring the numbers down.

Workers wear masks and other protective gear and in-person visits by family and guardians have been canceled.

Testing also has been ramped up.

“In addition to sentinel, surveillance and for cause COVID-19 testing, we offer opportunities for employees to test voluntarily if they feel they have been exposed to risks in the community,” Walker said.

But the high number of employees testing positive has resulted in a scramble to ensure staffing levels are adequate.

Supervisors are stepping in to other roles if there are staffing problems. Training has been increased to allow people to work in multiple areas.

Some employees are working 12-hour shifts. And a system was developed to recruit volunteers from administrative offices to work in a facility, if needed. 

All those adjustments come at a time when the state has paid out more than $7.6 million in hazard pay to frontline workers in the facilities as an incentive to continue coming to work during the pandemic.

Walker said it is notable that deaths among staff and residents have remained stable since June. Through Wednesday, two workers and four patients with COVID-19 have died.

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