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Lawyers representing patients in a mental hospital in southern California refer to the state facility as a “tinderbox” for Covid-19 infections.
In documents filed in federal court earlier this week, advocates for Disability Rights California and private law firm Covington & Burling asked Judge Jesus G. Bernal to order the release or rendition of half of the patients at Patton State Hospital.
Patton is located in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles. With 1,527 beds, it is one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the United States. The majority of those incarcerated at the facility were charged with a crime, but found by a judge to be incompetent to stand trial or not guilty of madness.
As of May, at least 335 Patton patients and 327 employees have tested positive for Covid-19. According to court records and the Department of State Hospitals (DSH) patient tracker, 10 patients have died.
The lawyers’ urgency motion is part of a class action lawsuit filed in August on behalf of four men committed in Patton. Prior to the lawsuit, several organizations, including the California Public Defenders Association and the Northern California ACLU, urged the Department of State Hospitals to screen patients for release or transfer to facilitate social distancing.
Some patients “no longer need treatment in a secure and locked facility,” said the organizations in a letter to Stephanie Clendenin, director of the DSH. “Many have family or friends who will support them in the community if they are released.”
The letter echoes requests from medical experts who have said since the pandemic began that the only way to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks in overcrowded correctional facilities is to significantly reduce the population.
Nobody warned us
Anne Hadreas, an attorney for Disability Rights California, said she and her colleagues met with DSH officials on multiple occasions but failed to reach an agreement on how to reduce the hospital’s population. They filed the emergency application after learning of a new outbreak in Patton.
“Because of the surprisingly high numbers, we couldn’t wait any longer,” she said.
Since mid-November, more than 150 Patton detainees have tested positive for Covid-19, including all four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. Eleven people were hospitalized with severe cases of the virus.
“The defendants have failed to conduct an adequate systematic screening of high-risk patients to determine who can be safely discharged into a less hazardous environment. Facilitating the release or transfer of such high-risk patients to safer, uncongested or less congregated environments; or otherwise reduce the patient population to allow anything that comes close to adequate social distancing, ”reads the new court record.
Affidavits from patients in the lawsuit describe an environment where social distancing is impossible. Patients sleep up to five people in a room, share a bathroom, eat in the same area, use the same phones, and gather in the same common area. Patients also described Patton as unsanitary and without ventilation.
The USC Medical Center. In California’s hospitals, the beds in the intensive care unit for Covid-19 patients are almost empty. Photo: Damian Dovarganes / AP
Charles Gluck, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the Guardian that staff never explained the threat posed by the virus. Gluck has diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure; He learned from television that his health puts him at risk for complications if he becomes infected with Covid-19.
“Nobody warned us,” he said.
Gluck recently tested positive for Covid-19. He sounded shabby on the phone. He said he had a fever and pain in his kidneys and could not sleep.
Gluck’s roommate, Ricardo Tapia, was also infected with the virus. Tapia said more than 20 people in her unit became sick after a man who was showing symptoms was brought to the unit in early December. The man was supposed to stay in his room, but he used the unit’s shared toilet and often opened his door.
Tapia and Gluck were both placed in an isolation unit with large dormitories with up to a dozen other patients. Both men said there was little to do but watch television.
“There’s no treatment here,” Tapia said, referring to therapeutic programs that have been suspended since March.
A spokesman for DSH said he was unable to discuss certain allegations in the lawsuit but said: “DSH continues to take all necessary measures to protect its patients and employees from Covid-19, following instructions from the California Centers for Health Department disease control and prevention; and other state and local partners. “
In their response to the plaintiffs’ urgency request, prosecutors asked Judge Bernal to stop all further proceedings as Covid-19 vaccines could call the lawsuit into question.
“DSH expects a sufficient number of doses of an approved Covid-19 vaccine to be made available to vaccinate more than half of DSH health workers in the highest priority category in early January 2021,” argued the lawyers .
The fact that conditions may improve in the future doesn’t change the fact that conditions are extremely dangerous now
Hadreas, the emergency record’s senior lawyer, said waiting until January when only some of the staff could be vaccinated was not an option.
“It’s not going to help the people who are getting sick or those who are going to get sick in the next few weeks,” she said. “The fact that conditions may improve at some point in the future doesn’t change the fact that conditions are extremely dangerous now.”
On December 7, DSH moved 43 women from Patton to a “surge capacity” facility in Norwalk, a suburb of Los Angeles. In a signed statement, Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco and an expert witness, described the move as “necessary” but insufficient. Chin-Hong has fined state officials for waiting until “an unsustainable number of patients test positive at DSH-Patton” rather than proactively finding alternative facilities.
Chin-Hong criticized the dormitory-style isolation units, noting that a person with Covid-19 can get a more serious infection if exposed to others with the virus. There is also a risk of re-infection.
“It is important to note that immunity can be short-lived and creates the conditions for possible reinfection even after recovery,” he wrote.
Hadreas acknowledged that moving people from Patton requires careful consideration.
“It’s really not a one-size-fits-all approach and that’s not what we’re asking for,” she said, adding, “The only way to create a safer environment is to have fewer people around for social distancing.” to be possible. “
A hearing on the emergency order is scheduled for December 22nd.