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St. Elizabeths’ delayed response to coronavirus contributed to 18 deaths, report says

St. Elizabeths Hospital, located in Southwest Washington, is the District’s public psychiatric hospital. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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A report released Monday by advocates for the mentally ill said a delayed response to the coronavirus at the District’s public psychiatric hospital contributed to the deaths of 17 patients and one staff member in the past year.

St. Elizabeths Hospital, D.C.’s 166-year-old mental hospital in Southeast Washington, houses patients committed in civil and criminal proceedings. Although it once held thousands of patients, its population has dwindled to about 200 as fewer people have been committed by courts in recent decades and as officials have tried to keep patients out of congregant settings during the pandemic.

A new report from the nonprofit Disability Rights DC, the federally mandated advocate for people with disabilities in the city, said St. Elizabeths’ failure to aggressively respond to the coronavirus led to a high death count.

The report, titled “Deadly Delays and the Tragic Loss,” said 14 of the patient deaths occurred about a month after the first staff person tested positive last March, and that more than half of the hospital’s patients have been infected. Three additional patients have died in the past month, according to city data.

St. Elizabeths “does not have a robust infectious-disease department or other medical resources found at medical hospitals,” the report said. It also said administrators failed to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Although Disability Rights DC urged administrators to bring in expert support during the pandemic’s opening weeks and filed a lawsuit, failures to isolate the sick and late implementation of temperature checks led to tragedy, the report said.

From April 2020: Most St. Elizabeths patients under quarantine after four coronavirus deaths

“St. Elizabeths’ leadership and administration were obligated to take aggressive and effective measures to protect the patients from the deadly virus quickly,” the report said. “They did not. They failed to adequately prepare and failed to adequately implement and follow CDC guidelines, and this allowed the virus to rapidly spread through the Hospital with deadly consequences.”

In a statement, Erica W. Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, said the hospital did follow CDC guidance, including regular testing of patients and staff, adhering to quarantine protocols and proper use of PPE.

The hospital “adopts new strategies as the guidance evolves based on the science,” she said, and has vaccinated 76 percent of patients and 63 percent of employees. No patients are currently infected, she said.

“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.

Andrea Procaccino, a staff attorney at Disability Rights DC, said in a statement that it’s “difficult to understand why St. Elizabeths’ administration and DBH did not take more aggressive steps to prepare for COVID-19, which they knew would come to DC. St. Elizabeths.

“The patients at St. Elizabeths were not free to leave,” she said. “They had no choice but to remain at the Hospital while the virus silently spread and the leadership responsible for their care and treatment failed to take the steps necessary to protect them.”

St. Elizabeths has increased usage of restraints on patients, report says

Eugene Carter, who died last March at 77, was one of the first coronavirus victims among St. Elizabeths’ patients.

Kim Dulic, Carter’s niece, said he had been in and out of the hospital for more than four decades as his mental health struggles kept him from living independently. She visited him there frequently throughout the years, she said, and he considered the hospital his home, buying clothes for other patients during off-campus shopping trips with this family.

Dulic said the family didn’t learn of his death until May, when they received a notification letter from the hospital in the mail.

“The cracks have to be pretty big for a person to die with no notification to the family,” she said. “That compounds the hurt and guilt . . . that there was not care at a place he called home.”

The new report did not give details about that case.

St. Elizabeths has been criticized for years by advocates who say it offers substandard care. Most recently, the facility faced a water shortage following an outbreak of legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, and allegations that it uses restraints on patients too frequently.

Linwood Bunch said his mother, Jeanette Cassandra Bunch, was a St. Elizabeths patient who suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia. She died at 67 in February of “covid-related issues” after suffering a stroke, he said. (The D.C. medical examiner said the case is pending.)

Bunch said he first learned of his mother’s death from her legal guardian, whom he had never met, and had sought information about her care only to be given “the runaround.”

“I think there needs to be some work done over there,” he said.

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