Civil Rights Groups Amend Suit Against St. Elizabeth’s to Add Challenge to Inadequate COVID-19 Response

Original suit sought relief for weeks-long water crisis, assailed lack of emergency preparedness

April 16, 2020 6:00 pm

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WASHINGTON – COVID-19 has killed four patients at the St. Elizabeths Hospital and sickened other prisoners and staff. In the wake of a 28-day water-shut off earlier this year, the inadequacy of the District’s emergency response at the Hospital has placed patients at an unreasonable risk. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter have amended their federal class-action lawsuit against Barbara Bazron, Director of the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health; Mark Chastang, CEO of St. Elizabeths Hospital; and the District of Columbia for the horrifying conditions at the hospital during a weeks-long water outage to also include the devastating effects that COVID-19 has brought to the facility. Brought on behalf of four patients, the case seeks immediate relief for unconstitutional conditions arising from the failure to plan adequately for emergencies including the water shut-off last fall, and COVID-19. The suit also requests for a permanent injunction that the District have a plan for hospital operations during emergency situations.

The original class-action complaint filed in this action challenged the Defendant’s decision to keep Saint Elizabeths Hospital operating during the October 2019 extended water crisis, and now includes the emergency health situation created by the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Although Defendants turned the water back on in October 2019, they have failed to take adequate steps to avoid another health crisis and have yet again fostered conditions to exacerbate the dangers to patients in their care.

“When this suit was first filed, conditions at the hospital were already dangerous,” says Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “The spread of COVID-19 throughout the facility, combined with the appalling lack of response to the initial water-crisis conditions, has created a deadly situation. Saint Elizabeths is supposed to provide intensive mental health treatment in a humane facility, but nothing could be further from the case at this moment. Patients are fearing for their lives as the facility refuses to adhere to guidance from the CDC and District on social distancing. A majority of the patients at Saint Elizabeths are Black, many are in poverty, and all of them have disabilities. They depend on the District for their care, and lack of regard for their lives and safety is breathtaking.”

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Defendants continue to admit new patients to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, refused to evaluate patients for community release and instead kept them committed to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and created conditions where the spread of the COVID-19 virus was unacceptably high. Patients currently admitted to Saint Elizabeths Hospital are not properly protected from the risk of contracting COVID-19, are not able to implement social distancing, and are not properly testing or isolating symptomatic patients or quarantining patients with COVID-19. Defendants conduct in admitting new patients, failing to properly test or isolate symptomatic patients, or quarantine patients with COVID-19 is so egregious as to shock the conscience.

“Last year’s water crisis demonstrated that the District had trouble maintaining safe and sanitary conditions at St. Elizabeths even prior to COVID-19. The four deaths that have already occurred in the facility represent six percent of all the deaths in the entire District population so far,” said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “How many more deaths should we expect in the coming days? And how many more deaths need to happen before the mayor and the administration of the hospital take action?”

This Class Action Complaint, Costa v. Bazron, challenges the Defendants’ failure create and execute an emergency preparedness plan to protect the patients at Saint Elizabeths Hospital from unreasonable risk of harm during the COVID-19 crisis and during prior public health crises, including the two prior extended water outages.

You can view the complaint here.

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