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Judge orders federal, state and local officials to meet about moving any coronavirus patients to Costa Mesa

Coronavirus protest
A group of protesters gathers outside the federal courthouse in Santa Ana before a hearing Monday on the possibility of sending people infected with coronavirus to Costa Mesa.
(Faith E. Pinho)

A federal judge Monday ordered federal, state and local officials to meet by the end of the week to sort out information about the potential use of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa as a coronavirus quarantine site, which the city is fighting.

A joint report on their meeting is due by 5 p.m. Friday, according to U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton. She set another court hearing for 2 p.m. March 2 to discuss the conclusions.

“We’re pleased with the outcome,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said of Staton’s decision. “We still have more work to do.”

Monday’s hearing at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana followed a whirlwind weekend for Costa Mesa and a list of federal and state agencies the city named as defendants when it successfully requested a temporary restraining order from Staton on Friday to block possible plans to send to Fairview people who have tested positive for the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

Federal defendants named in the city’s filing included the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, Air Force and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city also named as defendants the state of California and its Office of Emergency Services and Department of General Services, and the Fairview Developmental Center, which is state-owned.

A federal judge Friday night granted the city of Costa Mesa a temporary restraining order it sought to stop a possible plan by state and federal agencies to use the Fairview Developmental Center to house and quarantine people with the coronavirus.

City officials said they were notified Thursday evening that people infected with the coronavirus could be arriving in Costa Mesa over the weekend from Travis Air Force Base, a quarantine site in Northern California. Local officials said the news blindsided them and sparked worries about public health.

The City Council held an emergency closed session Friday afternoon in which it voted unanimously to file for the temporary restraining order to prevent the transport “until an adequate site survey has been conducted, the designated site has been determined suitable for this purpose, all necessary safeguards and precautions have been put in place, and the public and local government have been informed of all efforts to mitigate risk of transmission of the disease.”

Staton granted the order that night, pending Monday’s court hearing.

In responses filed in court Sunday, the federal and state defendants slammed the city for interfering in their handling of a public health crisis.

“Fear of COVID-19 does not justify such unprecedented intrusion into federal quarantine decisions by the specialized agencies responsible for this area,” the federal response stated.

The state’s response called the potential for transmission of the virus to the community around Fairview “negligible” and said patients would not be able to interact with the community from the secured site.

In court filings Sunday, federal and state agencies called Costa Mesa’s request for a temporary restraining order Friday that blocked coronavirus patients from being sent to the Fairview Developmental Center “premature,” “speculation” and disruptive.

The COVID-19 virus, first reported in Wuhan, China, has spread to three dozen countries, including the United States, and has resulted in more than 79,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,600 deaths.

“While we have nothing but compassion for those who are suffering from this virus, the health and welfare of our community is our top priority,” Foley said Monday. “Bringing those infected into this densely populated area is simply the wrong approach.”

Katrina Foley about coronavirus
Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley speaks after U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton on Monday gave federal, state, county and city officials until the end of the week to meet and sort out information about the potential use of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa as a coronavirus quarantine site, which the city is fighting. “We still have more work to do,” Foley said.
(Faith E. Pinho)

Statements from the California Health and Human Services Agency over the weekend said Fairview is “one of the possible locations under consideration.” The agency has considered several other facilities, including the Sonoma Developmental Center, Army National Guard Camp Roberts and closed youth correctional facilities, according to a statement in court documents by the agency’s secretary, Mark Ghaly.

“There is an urgent need to house evacuees who test positive for COVID-19. Using such a site would be better for public health than the alternatives, which consist of using hospitals or home isolation,” according to the federal defendants’ court filing. “Home isolation does not provide the same level of monitoring and care.”

Fairview has individual rooms with bathrooms attached, which would facilitate isolation, Daniel Beck, an attorney for the federal government, said Monday. It also would allow for monitoring several patients in a small area, he said.

During the court hearing, Staton tried to drill into questions Costa Mesa and Orange County officials had for their state and federal counterparts about the specifics of sending people to Fairview.

The center, at 2501 Harbor Blvd., opened in 1959 and once housed 2,700 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It had been nearly empty recently, and the last resident moved out Monday, the judge said.

Of the patients who remain at Travis Air Force Base and hospitals in Northern California, about 10 “units” of people who have tested positive for coronavirus but do not have symptoms could be isolated at Fairview, according to Beck. A unit could be an individual or a family, Beck said.

Costa Mesa’s emergency services manager, Jason Dempsey, said in court documents that state and county officials told him Thursday evening that Fairview would be cleaned up by Sunday in order to place 30 to 50 infected people.

California Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Eisenberg said Monday that the state has put conditions on the federal government so that Fairview would be used only for California residents.

“California has not agreed to house people from all over,” Eisenberg said. “The idea that this would become a nationwide center … is not part of the offer.”

Beck agreed.

Sixty-seven California residents, including some from Orange County, are among the Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base, federal agencies said in their filing Sunday. They have tested negative for the virus but are under quarantine because they could still fall ill, according to the court documents.

Housing them at the base “would pose a greater potential disruption to facility operations than the lesser resources and personnel needed for a group with no confirmed positives,” according to the filing.

The defendants pressed the judge for a hearing date before March 2, emphasizing that the longer the wait, the more likely people who have tested positive and are staying at hospitals in Northern California could strain the healthcare system there.

Staton said she didn’t think a few extra days would cause “an untenable situation” in Solano County, around Travis Air Force Base.

Foley said city officials would begin preparing a list of questions for state and federal officials, but she added that she couldn’t imagine a scenario that would make Fairview Developmental Center an acceptable location.

Orange County Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez said state officials “have been repeatedly unresponsive” to his agency’s request for detailed information on the possibility of coronavirus patients being sent to Fairview.

Foley said Friday that “our biggest concern is that we’re being left out of the discussion in terms of what the plan is. We don’t know how many people. We don’t know the level of illness. We don’t know how long. We don’t know what the treatment regime will be.”

The federal agencies’ response Sunday said “there is no requirement that a federal agency consult with and incorporate local government any time the agency makes decisions; indeed, such a requirement would cripple the federal government.”

A slew of elected officials and concerned residents packed Costa Mesa’s City Council chamber Saturday afternoon for a news conference supporting the city’s decision the day before to request a restraining order that at least temporarily blocked state and federal agencies from sending people with the coronavirus to the Fairview Developmental Center.

The issue raised an uproar among local residents over the weekend. By Monday afternoon, more than 6,000 signatures had been collected on a change.org petition to block confirmed coronavirus patients from being transferred to Fairview.

Neighbors of the 114-acre property expressed concern about the possibility of sending infected people to the facility, particularly since it is surrounded by several group homes for senior citizens or people with disabilities.

“With the elderly, they’re already sick as it is,” said Eddrick Watson, 24, a caregiver at a nearby group home. “That’s just my biggest concern. Any type of virus going around … could be fatal for them.”

A large group of elected officials from nearby cities and special districts attended a news conference Saturday to back Costa Mesa’s legal action, and some local agencies, including Orange County, the city of Newport Beach and the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, filed court documents to support the city, citing health and other concerns.

Daily Pilot staff writers Julia Sclafani and Hillary Davis contributed to this report.

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Updates:
7:18 PM, Feb. 24, 2020: This article was originally published at 6:15 p.m. and has been updated with new information.

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