COVID-positive behavioral health patients present new challenges for hospitals

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

As hospitals strain under the influx of COVID-19, they face new challenges in treating behavioral health patients, resulting in those patients being placed in facilities increasingly farther away.

During a Thursday morning Eastern Idaho Public Health District Board of Health meeting, Chief Operations Officer David Hoffenberg of Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center said the hospital is seeing an increase in the number of COVID-positive patients who also need behavioral health care. There are only a couple facilities in the region that are equipped to safely treat those patients, Hoffenberg said.

Chief Operations Officer Casey Jackman of Idaho Falls Community Health echoed those concerns. Recently, his facility spent 32 hours trying to place a COVID-positive behavioral health patient, and ended up sending him to Colorado.

Mental health has been an ongoing concern throughout the pandemic, due to unemployment, virus-related concerns, and other related stresses. Dr. Rachel Gonzalez, CEO of Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg, said her emergency room has seen a 50 percent increase in behavioral health-related visits. She also said mental health among medical professionals is also a concern.

“Suicide rates, depression and anxiety among nurses and physicians, was pretty high before the pandemic,” Gonzalez said. 

Compounding the problem: Mental health resources were strained before the pandemic. 

“That should be something that we’re all thinking about because we don’t have the resources in this community,” said Idaho Falls Fire Chief Duane Nelson. “We’ve never had them. We’ve done better, but we are not prepared for the influx of mental health and behavioral health issues in this community.”

Nelson said during a normal year, about 12 percent of his department’s calls are related to mental health crises and suicide attempts. As EMS resources are strained because of COVID, any additional increase is cause for concern.

“The calls are coming too fast. We are running out of ambulances nearly every day now,” Nelson said. Previously, when other parts of Idaho faced that strain, those regions could ask for help in the form of additional ambulances and personnel, he said. Now that everyone is strained, no one can offer that help, forcing the region to operate as an island.

While Idaho Falls area hospitals are still operating, they’re eyeing capacity issues and diversions at larger hospitals in Salt Lake City and Boise. 

“As we hear them being overrun and overwhelmed, that means we have to stand on our own.” Hoffenberg said. “I think we can all speak together and say we are nervous about our ability to do that on the long-term.”

The increase in COVID cases in the state impacts not just behavioral health, but nearly all types of healthcare. 

“It’s a compounding problem,” Nelson said. “I know that we talk about COVID and that’s really what we’re focused on, but this is a system-wide problem that is really going to be detrimental to our community. And how can we help that?”

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 208-398-4357. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, and text support is available 3 pm to midnight MT Monday through Friday.

Idaho also provides a coronavirus-specific help line for those with COVID-related stresses or crises. Call or text 986-867-1073. The COVID Help Now Line is staffed 8 am to 8 pm MT daily.

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