WASHINGTON – Because of significantly improved COVID-19 conditions at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a federal court yesterday vacated its May 2020 order against the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health requiring specific precautions against the spread of COVID-19. The patients’ attorneys filed a motion to end court oversight, without opposition from the District, because of the high vaccination rate for patients and staff, significant improvements in the care and testing for patients and staff, and adherence to the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 protocols. The District had previously appealed the order; in response to the court’s action, the appeal was dismissed today.
“This injunction has been life-saving for patients at St. Elizabeths and we're pleased to announce an agreement with the District that it should be ended, as it has done its job in preventing the rampant spread of COVID-19 at the Hospital," said John Freedman at the law firm of Arnold & Porter.
When the ACLU-DC, Washington Lawyers' Committee, and Arnold & Porter sought emergency relief from the court in April 2020 because of inadequate COVID-19 precautions at the hospital, four patients had died and dozens of staff and patients had tested positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit accused the District of jeopardizing patients’ health during the pandemic by failing to promptly test and isolate patients exposed to COVID-19 symptoms, among other problems. The judge appointed three independent experts to examine conditions at St. Elizabeths and relied on their reports in ordering improvements at the hospital.
"Psychiatric patients in a custodial setting are too often out of sight and therefore out of mind for policymakers,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee. “The court has provided critical oversight in this case to ensure that the vulnerable population at St. Elizabeths is properly protected from COVID-19 and that their needs are not ignored."
The court’s May 24, 2020, order required DBH to follow CDC guidance regarding the use of medical isolation for patients exposed to the virus and to follow CDC criteria before releasing patients from isolation. The court also ordered the Department to increase testing among staff, and limit staff movement between units in the hospital. At the time of the court’s order in May 2020, 14 individuals had died and 187 had tested positive. In the 11 months since the court ordered changes, there have been only 18 positive cases and one death. More than three-fourths of staff and patients have been vaccinated.
"The dramatic change in COVID-positive rates and deaths before versus after the injunction shows how much of a difference court intervention has made,” said Scott Michelman, ACLU-DC Legal Director.
While the lifting of last May’s order concludes the fight over emergency relief regarding COVID-19 conditions at the hospital, the underlying lawsuit – challenging the hospital’s failure to provide adequate crisis care to the hospital’s patients during the month-long water outage in the fall of 2019 as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic – will continue.
The case, Costa v. Bazron, was brought by the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter.