Ervin Longstreet stabbed a man in the neck at a rest area between Barstow and Bakersfield in 2007. He claimed he had been fighting for 10 years with an alien inside him who was taking his DNA.
Aldo Hernandez went on a seven-hour crime spree in the 1990s, fatally shooting one man, wounding several others and shooting at a cop. He claimed to be a representative of God, with infinite powers to make judgments on whether sinners should live or die.
And Charles Gluck and Graham Waldrop were accused of assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury and attempted murder, respectively, but were found not guilty by reason of insanity at trial.
Now committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, all four men and one other patient have petitioned a federal judge to release or transfer them — along with hundreds of other vulnerable patients at greatest risk of contracting or dying from COVID-19 — to safer, noncongregate facilities. An outbreak at the psychiatric hospital has, thus far, killed 14 patients, six in the last month, and infected hundreds of other patients and staff.
Officials with the California Department of State Hospitals insist the patients are a potential danger to the public and cannot be shuffled off to other facilities or released until they undergo a series of hearings and/or trials that would determine their eligibility for such a move.
“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,” according to a motion filed Monday, Jan. 4, in U.S. District Court in Riverside on behalf of Patton and the Department of State Hospitals, which operates Patton and four other state hospitals in Norwalk, Atascadero, Napa and Coalinga.
‘Tinderbox of infections’
Attorneys for the patients say time is of the essence as more patients become infected and/or die from the virus. They have described Patton as a “tinderbox of infections.”
“We’re not asking for an opening of the gates and dumping them into the community,” said Aaron Fischer, an attorney for the nonprofit Disability Rights California and one of the attorneys representing the patients. Instead, he said, advocates just want to “move them to a safe and appropriate setting, either operated by DSH or any number of community-based service providers, and to provide the resources necessary so they can continue to receive appropriate care,”
Disability Rights California and the law firm Covington & Burling LLP are pushing to reduce Patton’s patient population by nearly half.
“That means reducing the population at Patton by approximately 500 to allow for minimally adequate social distancing, which can be achieved through use of overflow DSH facilities as well as temporary or permanent discharge or transfer to settings where patients can safely live and receive continued care,” Fischer said.
Patton currently is treating 1,261 patients, according to court filings by the state.
A telephonic hearing on the motions is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, in U.S. District Court in Riverside, before Judge Jesus G. Bernal.
The DSH has asked the judge to delay taking action until hospital workers have been vaccinated, which could possibly stop or dramatically slow the spread of the virus and render the patients’ concerns moot. But the attorneys representing the patients say vaccinations offer no guarantee the virus will stop spreading, and that it would not be until March at the soonest when Patton staff have received the two necessary doses for the vaccine to be completely effective.
According to state tracking data, Patton has the highest number of COVID-19 patient infections and deaths among all five state hospitals, with 447 patients having tested positive for the virus and 14 reported deaths as of Thursday, Jan. 7. Coalinga State Hospital had the second highest numbers, with 358 patients testing positive and 12 deaths, followed by Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, with 326 infections and 11 deaths.
Napa State Hospital has reported 11 deaths and 145 infected patients and Atascadero State Hospital has reported 165 infected patients but no deaths.
Patients qualify for discharge
In December, attorneys for the patients filed an emergency motion in Riverside federal court, seeking a judicial order for the immediate discharge or transfer of patients at highest risk and for Patton to implement greater infection-control measures.
Fischer said the state has already deemed 272 high-risk patients, including Longstreet, “clinically and forensically” appropriate for discharge.
“They provide no information as to whether any of those patients have been released, and it is our understanding that almost none of them have,” Fischer said. “The DSH is holding 272 of our clients at high risk for severe COVID illness, who they have found do not need to be there. It’s unconscionable.
“DSH has sat on its hands when it comes to our clients. If the hospital was on fire, would DSH say that the patients must wait until their annual court date?” Fischer said. “Patton is on fire with COVID-19 right now, and DSH is telling them they must wait as if these are normal times.”
Hospital conditions in dispute
While attorneys for the plaintiffs allege patients are crammed with 50 others in single housing units, and that the hospital does not follow federal cleaning protocol, the state maintains in a motion filed Jan. 4 that Patton has implemented “immediate and robust infection control measures,” to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19.
The state has stopped admitting new patients at its hospitals, and has developed and disseminated a range of hospital-specific COVID-19 measures to staff. It also began providing masks daily to patients, as well as cleaning wipes on request. Additionally, Patton has begun providing health care employees with daily antigen testing. But most importantly, Patton has begun providing, upon request, the COVID-19 vaccine to patients who are in “designated risk categories,” as well as to employees who come into direct contact with the patients, according to the state’s motion.
“In this real-time litigation, defendant’s precautions have outpaced plaintiffs’ complaint, to the point where the complaint may be moot in a few weeks,” according to the motion. “DSH’s ongoing vaccination of designated patients and health care employees with direct contact with patients reduces the likelihood of harm to patients.”
‘Enormous risk’ remains
In a declaration filed in court on behalf of the patients, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a member of the Vaccine Leadership Group at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine, warned that vaccinations will “not come close to adequately reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection for both staff and patients” at all state hospitals.
“If DSH continues with its present approach and on its current trajectory, there is significant risk that COVID-19 will further spread and overwhelm the DSH-Patton patient population, leading to many more deaths,” Chin-Hong said.
Compounding the crisis is the shortage of ICU beds at hospitals and the potential unavailability of acute care for high-risk patients.
“DSH’s failure to act promptly and decisively now poses a risk to the local community in terms of putting further pressure on an already critical shortage of ICU beds in the region,” Chin-Hong said in his declaration. “Every day that these patients remain in congregate settings at Patton, without adequate social distancing … puts them at enormous risk of contracting COVID-19, with severe and potentially fatal consequences.”
Source: Orange County Register