Disability advocates sue group home administrators amidst virus outbreak

LONDON: An advocacy group that provides legal support for people with disabilities is suing the administrators of the California Department of State Hospitals and Patton State Hospital, alleging the patients at that facility are not being protected from COVID-19 during what advocates are describing as an outbreak.

Attorneys for Disability Rights California filed the class-action suit on Aug. 5, in U.S District Court on behalf of five named patients and others who similarly have medical conditions or are of an age that makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Patton is a forensic psychiatric hospital located near the city of San Bernardino, with more than 1,500 beds for patients who have been committed civilly or per court order, most often because they were deemed mentally incompetent and therefore unable to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The plaintiff contends patients at the hospital are particularly vulnerable to the virus because the hospital is designed to encourage social interaction. With this communal design, “social distancing is virtually impossible,” as up to 100 patients share a common room where they “watch television, play cards and games, and do art projects,” the lawsuit states.

It adds that hospitals such as Patton house many patients whose health conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes, also make them particularly at risk of contracting the virus.

According to data released by the Department of State Hospitals, 144 patients have tested positive for the virus since May 16, 32 of which have tested positive within 14 days of Aug. 13, when the most recent data was reported.

Of the five hospitals the state agency operates, Patton has had the most patients test positive. Metropolitan State Hospital, in Los Angeles County, has reported 78 positive COVID-19 tests, the second most and almost half of the number reported by Patton.

In addition, 128 staff members at Patton have tested positive for the virus since March 20, the most reported positive at any facility to date.

Coalinga State Hospital, in Fresno County, and Patton are the only two facilities that have reported deaths of patients due to COVID-19. Per agency policy, though, the hospitals have not reported specific figures. Rather, they reported only that the deaths at each facility have been less than 11.

Disability Rights California, however, contends: “At least two patients have died from complications after contracting the virus” at Patton.

Ken August, a spokesperson for the Department of State Hospitals, wrote by email Friday that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

August added that the department has implemented numerous measures to keep both patients and staff safe at all their facilities.

The hospitals have updated their plans for infection control, respiratory protection and pandemic response, August wrote. Hospital visitation has been suspended, masks are required and employees are medically screened each workday.

New patients admitted to the hospitals are tested for the virus and current patients are tested when they have symptoms or have potentially been exposed. Patients and employees are provided with information on how to protect themselves from the virus, including proper hygiene and social distancing.

“These actions and others by [the department] are part of an ongoing process that will be continuously improved and strengthened by guidance from the California Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other state and local partners,” August wrote.

Believing the virus’ transmission among patients at Patton has happened very quickly and continues to spread rapidly, Disability Rights California believes there is an urgent need to reduce Patton’s population and seek alternative locations for patient treatment.

“Patients have a constitutional right to safety,” said Anne Hadreas, a lead attorney for the advocacy group. “Since there have been deaths at Patton, the business as usual obstacles are no longer acceptable.”

While the Department of State Hospitals has not released data that shows the early transmission of the virus at Patton, the lawsuit alleges the spread at Patton has been exponential:

On June 1, the facility had four confirmed cases among patients.June 17, 63 patients and 20 staff positive.June 22, 76 patients positive.Aug. 5, 112 patients and 147 staff positive.

“In an effort to address the COVID-19 outbreak at DSH-Patton, Defendants placed at least 15 units, or approximately 650 patients, on isolation or quarantine by June 23,” the lawsuit states.

August added that as of Friday, 563 Patton patients are being quarantined due to possible exposure to the virus. After a potential exposure within a housing unit, both staff and patients are “serially tested,” he said.

The class-action suit requests that a judge order Patton’s administration to report details about the health of the hospital’s population and whether it has in place adequate emergency measures in light of the pandemic.

Additionally, Disability Rights California asks for monthly updates on conditions in the facility and a court-appointed expert to continue monitoring Patton until it has shown that the alleged conditions have been corrected.

Disability Rights California identified five patients who have conditions that make them acutely vulnerable, and add that, should they be permitted to review the hospital’s population, they would find at least half of the population share similar risk factors.

Richard Hart is a 66-year-old survivor of lung cancer who recently lost a portion of his lung during cancer treatment, according to the lawsuit. He has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, hypertension and is obese.

“Mr. Hart has a supportive family who have offered to assist him in his reentry into the community,” the filing reads. “He also has income to pay for a place to live independently, and would continue to receive medical and psychiatric services and follow any appropriate conditions for ongoing supervision.”

Ervin Longstreet is a Navy veteran and also a cancer survivor with multiple medical conditions. At Patton, he takes medication and sees a therapist, a treatment regimen his family has said they can maintain if he was released to their care.

Aldo Lopez has coronary artery disease and Type 2 diabetes. Attorneys wrote that he was recently evaluated and found to be “psychiatrically stable,” but has not been cleared for discharge or transfer.

“It is very scary to be stuck in a place where you don’t know the outcome and can’t see your family,” Lopez told attorneys. “All you can do is hope and pray that you don’t catch it.”

California Department of State Hospitals Director Stephanie Clendenin and Executive Director of Patton State Hospital Janine Wallace have failed, the lawsuit alleges, to utilize executive orders passed by Gov. Gavin Newsom allowing them to reduce the hospital’s population and protect the committed from contracting the virus.

Hadreas said that the hospital has not acted on repeated requests for certain at-risk patients to be transferred or released to a less-risky environment where they can continue treatment.

Doing so, Hadreas said, would lower the hospital’s population and make it easier for those who can’t be released to socially distance and for the facility to be sanitized.

“Ideally, we would like to work with [the department] to come up with a plan that meets our client’s goals as quickly as possible,” Hadreas said. “If not, we’ll have to move forward with legal mechanisms to get immediate relief.”