Concern over "fragile" mental health services

COVID testing during pandemic was inconsistent
  • Deborah Condon

The care of residents of mental health facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic was inadequate and these vulnerable people must be shielded against any further surges of the virus, the Mental Health Commission (MHC) has said.

The MHC is an independent body which works to foster and promote high standards and good practices within mental health services. It has published a COVID-19 review paper that focuses on the critical period from March to July of this year, when it monitored 181 services.

These services were made up of 67 inpatient units and 114 (unregulated) community residences, which altogether cared for around 3,900 service users nationwide.

Between March and July, 28 of the 181 services had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among their residents, while 47 services had confirmed cases among staff.

Altogether, 31% of the mental health services that were monitored reported confirmed cases of the virus, and there were 17 COVID-related deaths in three approved centres.

According to the MHC paper, the national COVID-19 testing system between March and July was "inconsistent and untimely" within these services. It noted that at times, the process for mass testing of residents and staff lacked coordination and oversight, while some services were arbitrarily excluded without explanation.

Furthermore, some services were confused about which health guidance they were meant to be following. This was particularly the case in approved centres that took in acute admissions.

The paper also pointed out that the use of dormitory-style accommodation was a factor in disease progression in some of the services worst hit by the virus. In 57 of the 181 services, some of the service users did not have single rooms, while residents had to share bathrooms in 102 of the services.

It said that a more robust regulatory framework is needed to help protect service users and staff against winter flu and any subsequent COVID-19 surges.

According to MHC chief executive, John Farrelly, management and staff of mental health services "worked hard to mitigate the issues identified in this paper" and they are owed a "huge debt of gratitude" as ultimately, they saved many lives.

"However, we must also recognise that the virus has not gone away and sadly, it continues to target the most vulnerable people in our society. With COVID-19 case numbers rising, a second wave is still very much possible. It is absolutely critical that we collaborate as much as possible now to protect those who remain most exposed to infection," Mr Farrelly insisted.

He noted that one of the MHC's main concerns during the March-July period centred on the testing of staff.

"We highlighted the significant inconsistencies in the process for staff testing, including the extent of planning and testing that was underway, and delays in results.

"From our ongoing monitoring of mental health services in recent weeks, the MHC, while recognising improvements, would still have concerns in this area and this is a worry as case numbers begin to rise again," Mr Farrelly noted.

He called for the roll-out of a transparent and rapid testing process for staff and residents.

"The cold, hard truth is that people with serious mental illness are reliant on a fragile mental health service. While we have a policy that we can all work towards implementing, it is critical that the providers are supported to strengthen the system in the here and now, and protect people as much as possible while this virus remains a threat," he said.

For more information on the MHC, click here.


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