In Light of Significant Improvements at St. Elizabeths, Court Lifts Remedial Order

Contact:
Gregg Kelley, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Gregg_Kelley@washlaw.org, 202-319-1070

Suzanne Ito, ACLU-DC, sito@acludc.org, 202-735-7286

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.

Read the decision here.

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DC Line

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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 nearly 1,000 lawyers practicing in 13 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.


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