As COVID-19 cases rise at a state psychiatric hospital, a federal judge mulls releasing patients
With coronavirus infections soaring inside a locked California psychiatric hospital, a federal judge this week is weighing whether to release and transfer hundreds of patients from the facility or to wait for vaccines to be administered.
Patton State Psychiatric Hospital in San Bernardino County has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic with 471 patients testing positive for the virus — the highest caseload among the state’s five psychiatric facilitites. Eleven patients are currently hospitalized with the virus and 14 others have died.
In all, nearly 1,300 patients are housed at Patton. They are largely people accused of violent crimes who were found by judges to be incompetent to stand trial or not guilty because of their mental illness. People committed to state psychiatric facilities like Patton typically must remain until a judge rules they would no longer pose a threat to themselves or others if released.
In August, a legal aid group, Disability Rights California, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Patton patients, alleging that cramped conditions in the hospital did not allow for social distancing. The case has taken on more urgency over the past month as infections and deaths have increased.
Attorneys for the group now are seeking an emergency order from U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal that would force the facility to release hundreds of patients at the highest risk of being infected or transfer them to facilities with more capacity. They did not specify how many patients they believe need to be removed from Patton, but said each housing unit on the campus should be no more than half filled
Their arguments mirrored those of attorneys in California and across the U.S. who have been pressing prison officials to release inmates as a way to protect against the virus.
Attorneys from the California Department of State Hospitals and the Attorney General’s Office objected to the idea of releasing or transferring Patton patients, saying such a move would pose a risk and was unnecessary as vaccines are becoming available.
“Defendants are not aware of any court in the country — and plaintiffs cite none — ordering the release and transfer of a class of committed and violent patients diagnosed with serious mental illness from the hospital to which a state court judge committed them for mandatory treatment,"attorneys for the state argued in a court filing this month.
Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Lisa Tillman told Bernal at a hearing Tuesday that vaccinations have begun for hospital staff and patients at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19. So far, Tillman said, about 40% of those patients have been inoculated.
But Bernal expressed concern about the pace of vaccinations, saying in court, “It is not clear in my mind how many people have been vaccinated.”
The judge ordered the state’s attorneys to produce a more precise count of the staff and patients who have been vaccinated and a timetable for the remainder to receive shots. “I want to have those numbers as soon as possible,” said Bernal, who added that he would hold another hearing after reviewing the vaccination figures.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a member of the Vaccine Leadership Group at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine wrote in a court filing that the vaccinations administered so far would “not come close to adequately reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection for both staff and patients.”
He warned that a “failure to act” will only further risk the local community as those from the facility fill San Bernardino area intense care unit beds.
Anne Hadreas, an attorney for Disability Rights California, pressed Bernal to move quickly to lower the number of patients at Patton.
She told the judge Tuesday that in the last 30 days, more than 150 patients have tested positive for the virus and two have died. Patients, she argued, will suffer “irreparable harm” unless the judge intervenes. In an interview after the hearing, she recounted patients’ descriptions of cramped sleeping quarters, overcrowded bathrooms and poorly ventilated, shared eating areas.
Among the plaintiffs is Ervin Longstreet, who in 2007 stabbed a stranger in the neck at a rest area on the road between Barstow and Bakersfield. Longstreet had for years prior to the attack insisted his body was inhabited by an alien and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Another plaintiff is Aldo Hernandez, who is particularly susceptible to the virus because of diabetes and obesity. Hernandez has been in state custody for more than two decades after he fatally shot one man and wounded several more before, including a police officer.
Despite the seriousness of their crimes, attorneys for the men argued Bernal “should ignore fear-mongering” by state lawyers in the case. They criticized hospital staff for not taking steps to release more than 200 patients who they said pose no threat.
“This case is about Defendants’ responsibility for ensuring the safety of vulnerable class members whom they are charged with protecting,” they wrote in court filings.
In June, Patton had recorded just four infections, but by August that number had climbed to 112 and two patients were dead from the virus. Infections among the more than 2,300 people who work at Patton have surpassed 500, the lawsuit claims. Forty-three patients have been moved from Patton to an emergency facility the state opened in Norwalk, according to court records.
In March, the state temporarily suspended hospital admissions, forbade visitors, gave patients masks, and provided health care employees with daily testing.
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