COVID fears hover over psychiatric centers

ALBANY — With more than 50 mentally-ill residents having died at state-run psychiatric centers from coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, the lack of a firm vaccination mandate for employees of those facilities is generating concerns.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said several times in recent days she is prepared to enforce the mandate requiring all employees of hospitals and nursing homes to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday.

State mandate

While that order applies to both private and public hospitals — including state-owned SUNY hospitals — the mandate does not extend to staffers at the state-run facilities that house mentally ill people.

As the Hochul administration negotiates with public employees unions on proposed exemptions from the vaccination mandate, “the psychiatric centers are not even in the mix, and we need to be,” said Harvey Rosenthal, the CEO of New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.

Rosenthal said the state has a duty to protect the individuals needing care at its psychiatric facilities, but those clients are vulnerable to the spread because they can often come into contact with unvaccinated state employees.

Deaths and infections

According to data posted by the state Office of Mental Health, a total of 1,339 clients of the agency have been infected with COVID-19 at the psychiatric centers since March 2020.

In that same time frame, a total of 51 state psychiatric patients have died at the facilities after becoming infected by the contagion, the state data shows. Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island is the facility that has recorded the most fatalities resulting from the infection: 11.

Responding to an inquiry from CNHI, James Plastiras, spokesman for the mental health agency, said beginning Oct. 12 all OMH staffers must be either vaccinated or be tested weekly for the virus infection.

Another recently implemented measure requires mask-wearing by staff, patients and clients in all facilities and programs run or certified by OMH, Plastiras noted.

Elevated risks

But Rosenthal said the clients and patients would have greater protection if the mandate being imposed on hospitals was broadened to include the psychiatric centers and housing operated by the agency.

About 4,000 people reside in the network of 24 state psychiatric facilities, he said.

Beyond their status as people getting mental health services, many of these individuals are at elevated risk for COVID-19 infections due to an array of health problems, including those related to tobacco use, obesity and diabetes, Rosenthal noted.

“These are not people who should remain vulnerable to the state workforce,” he said.

Vaccination rates

Plastiras said 72% of OMH staffers have had at least one vaccine dose, while 73% of inpatients served by the agency have had at least one dose.

The vaccination rates for OMH outpatients and residential clients are lower, at 56% and 70%, respectively, according to the agency.

The state’s vaccination mandate for hospital workers applies to thousands of SUNY hospital workers who are represented by United University Professions. The union’s president, Fred Kowal, estimated last week that about 90% of UUP members have been vaccinated.


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