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Stomach bug added to mental health 'crisis'

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 18. 2013 10:50PM

MANCHESTER - The stomach flu played a substantial role in a key date last week, a day when 31 mentally ill people languished in hospital emergency rooms, unable to be properly placed in a treatment facility, health officials acknowledged this week.

The Cypress Center, a 16-bed residential mental health treatment facility in Manchester, could not accept new patients and had 13 idle beds because of an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus, said Kendall Snow, spokesman for the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester.

On that day, Jan. 7, advocates for the mentally ill announced that 31 adults and three children were undergoing a crisis and waiting in hospital emergency rooms for placement into a treatment facility. The number represented a record, and highlighted a crisis in the underfunded mental health system, advocates said.

Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he was unaware of the situation at Cypress Center when he announced the backlog in emergency rooms.

The previous record backlog was 26, he said, and even if the Cypress Center beds were available, the backlog would be large.

"Twenty people waiting in an emergency room instead of 30? It's still a crisis with 20 people," he said.

Nancy Rollins, associate New Hampshire commissioner of Health and Human Services, said state officials heard from the Riverbend community mental health center on the morning of Jan. 7. The day was a Monday, which officials said is the heaviest for admissions to mental health treatment facilities.

Concord Hospital's yellow pod, the term for the stabilization room, was overloaded, and Riverbend asked the state for help in finding placements.

Usually, Cypress Center can take patients who have been stabilized in an emergency room and agree to go there. It can also take involuntary patients when necessary, Snow said.

But the norovirus had put Cypress Center out of commission. Thirteen beds were empty, and the three patients there had the norovirus. The city Health Department had urged Cypress Center not to admit any more patients, Snow said.

"That just shows how fragile the system is," Rollins said. "When one thing gets really backed up, there can be a significant impact that ripples through the system."

Rollins said New Hampshire Hospital ended up adding eight beds in visitor areas to take pressure off Concord Hospital.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the norovirus spreads quickly from person to person, especially among those in confined spaces such as long-term care facilities, day care centers, schools and hotels. It is spread through contaminated food, surfaces, and direct contact with infected people.

"We're admitting people who are run down to begin with," and therefore susceptible to disease," Snow said.

Cypress Center cleaned and sanitized its facility at the end of last week, but officials again had to restrict admissions this week when the norovirus reappeared.

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