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Harford Crisis Center adding 13 inpatient beds in anticipation of ‘surge’ in mental health care needs

Thirteen inpatient beds have been established in the Klein Family Harford Crisis Center in Bel Air, as University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health increases its capacity to handle a potential surge in the number of patients with mental health needs.

Upper Chesapeake filed a request to create the additional beds with the Maryland Health Care Commission, and the commission approved the application during its April 16 meeting. It was one of multiple applications by Maryland health systems to increase hospital bed capacity during the coronavirus pandemic, and the commission approved all of them. The UCH application was the only request pertaining to mental health, however.

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“The request is really part of our COVID response plan, in the event that we experience a behavioral health specific patient surge,” said Pam Llewellyn, interim executive director of behavioral health for Upper Chesapeake and director of the Crisis Center.

That surge was not happening as of last week when Llewellyn spoke with The Aegis. Health system officials wanted to make the request ahead of time and “be as prepared as possible,” she said.

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Upper Chesapeake Health manages the Crisis Center, which was established through a partnership between UCH, the county government, Harford health department, community organizations and private entities that provide mental health treatment.

The center offers outpatient and inpatient services to treat mental health crises and addiction, including residential crisis beds for clients who need to stay in the facility on a short-term basis. It also operates the 1-800-NEXT-STEP crisis hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Upper Chesapeake’s application calls for converting its eight existing residential crisis beds to “inpatient behavioral health beds” and bringing in five additional inpatient beds. Those 13 will augment existing behavioral health beds at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.

“We need flexibility to expand, if and when we need to,” Llewellyn said.

Harford Memorial typically has 28 inpatient beds for mental health needs, with two beds to a room. Officials have, in order to promote social distancing during the pandemic, created “single-occupancy” rooms. That means one patient to a room and a capacity of 14 beds at present, according to Llewellyn.

About 21 to 25 people per day received inpatient behavioral health treatment at Harford Memorial before the pandemic. If the need for more beds arises during the crisis, health system officials would create the additional capacity by converting unused space at the hospital at first.

Upper Chesapeake also must take into account other factors before turning to the inpatient Crisis Center beds, such as whether its hospitals’ emergency departments are able to handle patients with acute behavioral health needs, if patients can be transferred to other area hospitals or if community agencies can provide care.

“We don’t have that need at present for more inpatient beds, but we are prepared to do so if needed to support whatever the surge may bring us,” Llewellyn said.

The beds for the Crisis Center have been ordered, and that “flexibility of capacity” is expected to be in place by the end of this week, she said.

Outpatient services

The Crisis Center continues to provide outpatient services, although many people are treated via telehealth rather than meeting with their provider in person. Group counseling sessions are limited to three to four people, and clients must remain 6 feet apart.

Masks must be worn while in treatment areas, and staff and clients get their temperatures checked on a daily basis, according to Upper Chesapeake.

Patients and staff go through health checks at the door, such as getting their temperatures taken and answering questions about any COVID-19 symptoms they might have. Anybody who shows potential symptoms of the novel coronavirus is referred for medical treatment, according to Llewellyn.

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“We will accommodate [patients], so long as they do not have those physical medical needs that need to be addressed first in this current pandemic,” she said.

Llewellyn stressed that just because there is not a surge of inpatients now does not mean that the need for those services is not there. There has been a spike in the volume of calls to the Harford County crisis line, as well as to national hotlines, over the past month, she said.

Many people are remaining at home in accordance with state mandates to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Llewellyn lauded those who call crisis hotlines, as “they’re still reaching out for help.”

“When some mandates are lifted, we may see a surge at that time of people needing inpatient" behavioral health care, she said.

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