Uncertainty. It’s the watchword of today. Yet, in looking around there is hope. There is support. There is a commitment to the wellbeing of others. Acts of kindness and compassion are everywhere, lifting one another up. And there is no doubt that these challenging times will pass.

In the face of a global COVID-19 pandemic, one need not look any further than their own backyard to see evidence of this. Members of the Washington County Mental Health Services (WCMHS) team are continuing their work, providing support and treatment for people with mental health and developmental/intellectual service needs.

Over the past three weeks, a huge shift has taken place for many, who now receive their services through telehealth technology to maintain continuity of care and a sense of normalcy while being directed by state government to shelter in place. While making that shift to telehealth, WCMHS still provides vital direct supports in residential facilities, community outreach and through emergency services response to the community.

“We are doing everything possible throughout our agency to maintain services while optimizing safety within an ‘altered standards of care’ paradigm,” said Mary Moulton, the WCMHS Executive Director. “As is the case with many, we are learning a great deal about our technological capabilities and our staff is becoming more and more accustomed to working remotely, where possible. Many of our services, particularly those in residential care require in-person interaction, recognizing the need for social distancing.”

WCMHS provides daily support to people living in small group settings. It’s been working hard to educate the public about the virus, personal protective equipment, and how to alleviate stress through activities that can be done while social distancing. The agency’s community outreach workers are delivering groceries, meals, and care packages and making telephone contact supports to reduce isolation.

To further reduce personal contact, WCMHS emergency services teams have implemented telehealth assessments whenever possible, working to identify options for people to meet their psychiatric needs while reducing risk of contagion for both staff and the public.

A Remarkable Transition

WCMHS employs approximately 750 people dedicated to serving more than 5,000 residents of Washington County and the Orange County towns of Washington, Orange and Williamstown. One division that has successfully embraced technology is the outpatient division of the agency’s Center for Counseling & Psychological Services (CCPS).

On March 9th, CCPS did not use telehealth services, other than the telephone. By March 12th, a HIPAA compliant video-conferencing application was in full use.

In the last two weeks, 1,100 telehealth meetings have been conducted totaling more than 149,800 minutes by more than 4,500 participants. These included clinical and therapeutic support, trainings, staff supervision and administrative oversight and crisis planning. All psychiatric appointments are also conducted via telehealth at this time.

An Investment in Life Safety

Nationally, the community mental health system was already strained, both in terms of funding and staffing. Vermont was no exception. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even greater stress has been placed on this system, and federal funding doesn’t appear to be targeting the state’s designated agencies.

State authorities at the Agency of Human Services are well aware of these pressures. They are working with the agencies to maintain funding streams and determine how to address the increased expenses of maintaining services for vulnerable populations through the pandemic. At the same time, WCMHS’ leadership is working with others around the state to spread the word that these essential services are being strained.

The WCMHS leadership team, its Executive Director well-versed in crisis management, began planning at the beginning of March to maintain staffing levels to best support its clients and keep its dedicated staff working. With that in mind, the strategy of personnel redeployment was been put in place.

In the first week of planning, human resources and quality assurance teams developed a survey to determine who could and would be willing to be redeployed, to work in service and program areas outside of their typical role. The team stepped up. More than 400 of the agency’s team indicated their willingness to be redeployed.

The redeployment strategy provides for employees who might be symptomatic for COVID-19. It also accommodates staffers whose school-aged children are now home due to state-wide school closures or whose program’s services have been suspended or reduced.

“To say we have an unbelievable group of dedicated professionals would be an understatement,” said Susan Loynd, Administration and Human Resources Director at the WCMHS. “Many of our team are going beyond their typical day-to-day assignments. Planning has helped undermine manpower shortages in essential programs like our residentials. Our goal was to maintain the quality of care we provide while keeping people employed. People are going above and beyond, and we hope the state will support us with the extra dollars necessary to maintain our system of care and the lives we support.”

Out in The Community

While regular services have shifted their approach, there are further efforts to go above and beyond. Thomas “Toby” Wells is a Special Education Coordinator at the WCMHS Children Youth & Family Services program. Mr. Wells and his wife Christa run Little Crickets Day School in Northfield. Mrs. Wells used her vast experience working with children to write a children’s book about the coronavirus.

We Care! A simple guide for children; understanding COVID-19 helps parents navigate the pandemic. It provides guidance on explaining the basics of what a virus is and what social distancing means. It also suggests fun things to do while home from school like making popsicles, slime and so much more. It even explains how to properly wash hands with a delightfully fun song to accompany the task.

The team at the Community Development Service’s Learning Collaborative has developed a daily newsletter to further help children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities who are now more isolated at home. Emailed to consumers, staff, and home providers, the newsletter offers education on staying healthy and ideas for daily activities.

All of these resources are featured on a landing page created by the agency to support anyone in the community during this stressful time. The landing page also offers self-help tips, methods for reducing stress and so much more.

Making Deliveries and More

The Sunrise Recovery Center, a day program located in Montpelier that provides a peer-supported approach to recovery for individuals struggling with mental illness, trauma and substance abuse has suspended operations due to the need for social distancing. Regardless, it’s still a beehive of activity.

Last week, the staff delivered food and toiletries to many homebound clients. In addition to the essential items, they also provided care packages that included art supplies, coloring and drawing supplies, and jigsaw puzzles to almost 50 people to help with issues related to isolation, disconnection and resulting idle time. By Friday, they had prepared as many as 200 of the same care packages that also included some basic medical supplies.

Mandated isolation can make people feel as though they are alone, even in the presence of others like family. Washington County Mental Health has been determined to make connections and provide a level of continuity of care to the clients they support and the surrounding Washington County community. While many businesses are being forced to shut down and lay people off, the agency and its staff are available and open to help. Always.

Like so many community-based teams in Vermont and around the world, Washington County Mental Health has shown resilience in the face of uncertainty, meeting it with a level of dedication, integrity and selflessness that demonstrates what community mental health and developmental services are all about.

“We know these are extremely difficult times, both for our clients and staff,” says Moulton, “but being here for each other, no matter what lies ahead, is what makes us get up and keep going, one day at a time.”

Washington County Mental Health Services advocates the inclusion of all persons into our communities and actively encourages Self-Determination and Recovery. We serve all individuals and families coping with the challenges of developmental and intellectual disabilities, mental health, and substance use by providing trauma-informed services to support them as they achieve their highest potential and best possible quality of life.