Attorneys are demanding that Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino take immediate steps to reduce its patient population and enhance safety protocols amid a surging coronavirus outbreak that has infected 110 patients in the past 10 ten days.

In an emergency motion filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Riverside, attorneys with the Sacramento-based nonprofit Disability Rights California and the law firm Covington & Burling, on behalf of four Patton patients, sought a judicial order for the immediate discharge or transfer of patients at highest risk for COVID-19 to safer, noncongregate facilities and for Patton to implement greater infection-control measures.

Since July, 10 patients have died from COVID-19 and at least 11 patients have required acute hospitalization. “Critical action is required now,” according to the motion.

335 patients have virus

Aaron J. Fischer, litigation counsel for Disability Rights California, said Tuesday that more than half of Patton’s patient population have medical conditions putting them at high risk for contracting COVID-19. To date, he said, 335 patients have tested positive for COVID-19. The facility, a lockdown hospital for the mentally ill committed by the courts, has 1,527 beds.

Many high-risk patients can be discharged to safer and less crowded settings, but remain trapped in what has become a “tinderbox of infections,” according to the motion.

For example, patient Ervin Longstreet, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who recently tested positive for COVID-19, suffers from multiple medical co-morbidities, and was found by Patton officials to be fit for discharge in September. However, Longstreet remains a patient at the hospital and has since contracted the potentially deadly virus, according to the motion.

Another high-risk patient suffering from serious respiratory problems was among the patients who contracted the coronavirus in the past 10 days, and is now hospitalized due to difficulty breathing and has been coughing up blood, the motion states.

Another patient, Ricardo Tapia — a decorated Marine veteran with a traumatic brain injury — described the hospital as a “ticking time bomb,” according to a Disability Rights California news release. Tapia tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

Daily testing for employees

Ken August, a spokesman for the Department of State Hospitals, declined to comment on the litigation Tuesday, Dec. 15, but said in an email that, since March, Patton as well as all other state hospitals have been planning, preparing for and responding to the pandemic. And beginning Wednesday, all state psychiatric hospitals will begin daily antigen testing of hospital employees working in patient units.

In a rebuttal motion also filed in federal court on Monday, the state asked the judge to delay taking action until hospital workers have been vaccinated.

“A stay is warranted because key regulatory agencies’ scientific findings and decisions concerning the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine may be dispositive on the issue at stake in this action: whether plaintiffs reside within constitutionally adequate conditions of confinement at (Patton State Hospital) notwithstanding their potential individual risk of serious illness or death from a COVID-19 infection,” according to the motion filed by the state.

On Monday, Pfizer’s long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine began rolling out to hospitals and other deployment sites nationwide, including in San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles and Orange counties. Health care workers are the first in line to receive the vaccine.

Disability Rights California filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the four patients in August, accusing Patton and the state of failing to take precautions to keep patients safe from the coronavirus. Since Dec. 7, three of the four patients have contracted COVID-19.

Few precautions taken

The suit alleges patients are locked with 50 others in single housing units, which include one eating area, one communal lounge and a few telephones.

Patients allege the hospital has not been following federal cleaning protocol. The suit says hospital staff does not routinely sanitize common surfaces, including tables, chairs, and telephones, between use by patients. Additionally, staff rotates through the units constantly, and does not regularly wear masks when interacting with patients.

Three experts have reviewed patient conditions at Patton and confirm that “the conditions at (Patton) create enormous risk of COVID-19 transmission and mass outbreaks, putting plaintiffs at substantial risk of severe illness or death,” according to the motion.

The state, however, disputes those claims in its rebuttal motion filed Monday with the court.

Before the lawsuit was filed, the Department of State Hospitals, according to the motion, “engaged in stringent infection control measures indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California Department of Public Health, and other state and local partners to prevent the entry and spread of COVID-19 into (Patton’s) patient population.”

From March 23 through late May, Patton suspended hospital admissions in response to COVID-19, prohibited in-person patient visits, and has been screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their temperatures and having them tested for forthe virus if there is a potential exposure. Additionally, all employees are required to wear masks, and patients also have been provided masks and are encouraged to wear them, and social distancing measures have been implemented and patient activities modified, according to the state’s motion.

Vaccine offers new hope

And now, a vaccine is on the way.

“Now, thanks to the expedited research for a vaccine, (Patton) awaits the inoculation of its health care staff with a vaccine given emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration,” according to the state’s motion.

Attorneys for the patients, however, maintain that Patton and the state have failed to properly safeguard patients against the coronavirus.

“For months, defendants have maintained that Patton is sufficiently safe for plaintiffs despite holding plaintiffs in crowded, congregate settings where social distancing is impossible,” according to the emergency motion, which also alleges that the defendants have failed to adequately assess high-risk patients to determine their eligibility for release or transfer to another, non-congregate facility.

“These failures are responsible for the new deadly surge in COVID-19 infections at Patton,” the motion alleges.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal is expected to set a hearing date in the next few days, Fischer said.

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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