The locked facility, located in Southeast D.C., has faced criticism since last spring for its lack of coronavirus safety measures.
Inaction and a lack of planning contributed to the deaths of 18 individuals at St. Elizabeths, the District's only public psychiatric hospital, according to a new report from Disability Rights D.C., the federally mandated watchdog group for the city's residents with disabilities.
The secure facility located in Southeast D.C. has been at the center of public scrutiny since last spring for its lack of coronavirus safety measures. By April 14, four patients had died, prompting its patients to sue the city-run facility over claims that sick patients were not isolated from those who had not yet shown symptoms of COVID-19.
Within a month of its first reported case, 14 patients had died and 78 were infected, according to Disability Rights D.C.'s report, titled "Deadly Delays and the Tragic Loss." Over the past year, more than half of the patients at the facility have been diagnosed with COVID-19 — 17 patients and one staffer have died. Just this past month, three people died at the hospital, per D.C.'s reported data.
"The St. Elizabeths patients who became ill and died are not merely statistics. They had families and friends who loved them and who continue to grieve their loss," the report reads. "St. Elizabeths leadership and administration were obligated to take aggressive and effective measures to protect the patients from the deadly virus quickly. They did not."
Staff reported that they weren't given adequate equipment and resources to protect the patients at the hospital, which is operated by the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. Unlike medical hospitals, St. Elizabeths doesn't have a robust infectious disease department, the report says. Most of its patients are Black or Latino.
Andrea Procaccino, a staff attorney for DRDC, wrote in a statement to DCist/WAMU that the city knew early on that institutional and congregate settings like St. Elizabeths were especially vulnerable to outbreaks.
"We pleaded with them to obtain more expert assistance. They did not and our worst fears came to fruition," Procaccino said. "Although it may not have been possible to prevent the virus at St. Elizabeths completely, with adequate preparation and adherence to CDC guidelines, it was possible to contain it — to minimize the spread and prevent such tragic loss and terrible suffering."
Erica Cunningham, a spokeswoman for DBH, told the Washington Post in a statement that St. Elizabeths has followed CDC guidance for quarantining and PPE usage, and has regularly tested patients and employees. No patients are currently infected, she said. (D.C. government data shows that 17 personnel are still out or in quarantine due to COVID-19 and 100 patients who have tested positive for coronavirus at some point are in quarantine or isolation.)
The hospital, Cunningham added, has administered the coronavirus vaccine to 76% of its patients and 63% of its staff.
"The Hospital continues to admit and treat people to recover from severe mental illnesses while maintaining a safe environment for patients and employees," she said.
In at least one case, a patient's family didn't learn of his death until months later when they were notified by mail, per the Post.
Procaccino, the DRDC lawyer, said DBH and St. Elizabeths' leaders need to be transparent about their lack of preparation and must detail how they plan to address these concerns. Over the summer, DRDC released another report revealing statistics about the hospital's overuse of restraint and seclusion on patients.
"Our multiple previous reports detail even more patient suffering as a result of St. Elizabeths' actions," Procaccino said in her statement. "How many more investigation reports that reveal serious abuse and neglect are required before meaningful change is instituted?"
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.