Beth Dugan, manager of Prince William County’s Behavioral Health Program, is enrolled in the Schar School’s Master’s in Public Administration Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program.
Even though I’ve worked at the Prince William County (Va.) Community Services (C.S.) for almost 19 years, I’m not sure I would have ever considered myself, or my whole agency for that matter, essential personnel—and I’m certain that the community didn’t think a bunch of “social workers” were essential. But just like almost everything that has happened over the past few months, I now realize what I thought was true weeks ago is not true now.
Historically, when we have thought about who are “essential” at the C.S. it has been our emergency services staff. The staff responds 24/7 to people who are in a mental health crisis and might require psychiatric hospitalization. However, when we used to think of an emergency, we generally thought of things that were time limited—snow storms, a building becoming unusable for a period of time, something that would have a clear and already projected end and not something that is so uncertain and indeterminate.
The definition of essential has changed at C.S.—and has changed forever.
While the future is hazy, what is crystal clear is that services at C.S. cannot just be stopped. While we are doing everything we can to move our services to telemedicine and maintain our social distance from our customers—the citizens of the county who have serious mental illnesses, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities, as well as our littlest citizens ages 0 to 3 who have various disabilities—sometimes that is just not possible.
We have nurses who have to give injections to people, we have clients who have to have their medications delivered to their homes, we have people in hospital emergency rooms who are having psychiatric emergencies and need to be assessed, we have clients that struggle to provide basic care for themselves without direct staff intervention, we have clients who are receiving medication assisted therapy to deal with opioid addictions and need drug screens, we have clients that still come to the office door looking for support and reassurance…and the list goes on.
It’s also been amazing to see who really is essential—receptionists, nurses, and clerical staff, the staff members who answer phones, open the “closed facility” doors so clients can get their meds, staff who give people injections. What has been scary has been the lack of personal protective equipment that our staff desperately need to do these jobs safely. Lack of masks, gloves, and cleaning products put our staff potentially at risk just like every other essential personnel in the county. The County Emergency Operations Center is doing the best they can to locate the equipment, but it just isn’t there.
However, our staff keeps plugging away, doing what we must to support our local medical establishment. Every person C.S. keeps from seeking/requiring care at a hospital or needing police or EMS intervention is a person that isn’t adding to an already overburdened health care system. Hopefully we’re reducing the pressure on our community partners and fellow essential personnel.
As always, I am amazed at the dedication and creativity that all our county government employees display daily and even more so during times of crisis. Last month, despite the challenges we faced, and will continue to face, the Prince William C.S. has provided services to more than 4,000 of our citizens. It is only through the resolve, ingenuity, and commitment of our staff that some of the most vulnerable citizens of Prince William County continue to stay home, healthy, and safe and allow our community partners to provide the health care and emergency services that are so very critical during this unprecedented time.