DC hospital patients settle lawsuit alleging harmful conditions during start of COVID pandemic

Patients at St. Elizabeths settled their lawsuit against the hospital and D.C. for the unconstitutional conditions during a water shut-off in October 2019 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The settlement requires the District to implement new emergency preparedness procedures that will protect patients from any harm they experienced during these past emergencies.

St. Elizabeths patients are majority Black and have disabilities and depend on the District for their care. 

When water to the hospital was shut off in 2019 because of a bacterial contamination, critical treatment was terminated for many patients, and all patients had limited or no access to showers, other basic hygiene and hot food. 

READ MORE: President Biden to end country's COVID-19 emergencies on May 11

When the COVID pandemic hit in the wake of the water crisis, from March to May 2020, more than 187 patients in the hospital contracted COVID resulting in 14 patient deaths. During this period, the court estimated that the chances of a person in St. Elizabeths contracting COVID was 40 times the risk for a person living in the community.

In April and May 2020, the court issued a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction requiring the District to conform to CDC guidance by increasing its use of medical isolation for COVID and to test all patients and staff for the virus.

As the court concluded, the hospital could not defend its "perilous practice" regarding isolation and D.C. officials’ "delay in testing all staff and their lack of a plan to continue testing all patients and staff constitutes a substantial departure from professional judgment."

READ MORE: US health officials propose once-a-year COVID-19 vaccines for most Americans

The injunction was in place for nearly a year, resulting in a lower number of infections and deaths under the injunction than before it.

The current settlement requires the District to take affirmative steps to protect patient safety, to ensure they are receiving the medical and mental health care they need and to ensure they are not placed in unwarranted restrictive settings as the result of an emergency. 

"We are proud to have been able to achieve this tremendous result for our clients," said John A. Freedman, Senior Pro Bono Counsel, Arnold & Porter. "What happened during the early pandemic was a tragedy but this settlement will help ensure St. Elizabeths is better prepared to protect patient health during any future emergencies."