WASHINGTON – Early Saturday morning, a federal court ordered the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health to isolate patients at St. Elizabeths Hospital who have been exposed to the coronavirus. The hospital was previously quarantining all patients suspected of exposure together, and returning patients to the general population after a single negative test result, a practice the court called “contrary to accepted professional standards.”

COVID-19 has killed seven patients and two staff members at the hospital and infected more than 100 patients and staff. As a result of inadequate infection control and mitigation practices, the virus continues to spread inside the Hospital, killing one patient just yesterday and leading to the positive tests of others.

“The patients in the St. Elizabeths Hospital are confined for psychiatric treatment and care. As COVID-19 sweeps through the Hospital they lack the ability to protect themselves and are entirely dependent on the Hospital which failed to take some of the most basic measures to prevent the spread of the virus” said Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “At the same time that the danger of being in the Hospital increased, psychiatric treatment diminished, causing significant further harm. This order is an important first step to protecting the lives and rights of more than 200 patients.”

In his opinion, Judge Randolph Moss noted the “risks to Plaintiffs are immediate and manifest” inside the hospital, and “efendants have offered no explanation why patients who have been exposed to the virus are not more closely monitored to ensure that they are isolated to the extent consistent with patient health and well-being.”

The court also ordered more extensive evaluation and reporting on conditions of patients removed from isolation.

“The patients at St. Elizabeths are among the District’s most vulnerable, so it’s especially appalling that it took more legal action for DBH to meet its basic constitutional obligation to provide an environment that doesn’t threaten the lives of its patients,” said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “It was bad enough when DBH took a business-as-usual approach during the water crisis, but for a hospital to ignore basic public health guidance during a pandemic is despicable. We will continue to monitor the conditions at St. Elizabeths to ensure the judge’s orders are followed and hold St. Elizabeths accountable to its patients and their family members.”

Today’s order was issued in response to a motion for emergency relief filed April 16 in a class-action lawsuit brought by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the law firm Arnold & Porter on behalf of three patients at St. Elizabeths.

Today’s order and opinion can be found here.

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ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.

ABOUT THE ACLU OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: With more than 14,000 local members, the ACLU of the District of Columbia fights to protect and expand civil liberties and civil rights for people who live, work, and visit D.C., and in matters involving federal employees and agencies. ACLU-DC pursues its mission through legal action, legislative advocacy, and public education.  

ABOUT ARNOLD & PORTER: With more than 1,000 lawyers practicing in 15 offices around the globe, Arnold & Porter serves clients across 40 distinct practice areas. The firm offers 100 years of renowned regulatory expertise, sophisticated litigation and transactional practices, and leading multidisciplinary offerings in the life sciences and financial services industries.