A water outage that lasted about a month at a D.C.-owned psychiatric hospital has led to a federal lawsuit from a pair of civil rights groups.
The groups, which called the conditions at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast “horrifying,” are suing on behalf of four patients.
“I can’t overstate how egregious the conditions are,” said Margaret Hart, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit. “A hospital without water cannot really function as a hospital.”
The groups suing include the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the ACLU of the District of Columbia.
“The District subjected some of its most vulnerable residents to appalling conditions, depriving them of basic human needs and jeopardizing their health, safety, and recovery,” said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the D.C. ACLU.
The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, which oversees St. Elizabeths Hospital, said Wednesday that water was being switched back on for the first time since legionella bacteria turned up during routine testing in late September.
Legionella can cause a severe form of pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease, though no one at the hospital became sick from it.
Barbara Bazron, the director of the behavioral health department, said that the latest round of tests showed the water was safe. Last week, her department said that initial attempts to treat the hospital’s water system with chlorine were not successful.
“I am very pleased to learn that after the second round of chlorination of the water system at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the water system has been successfully treated and all bacteria has been eliminated,” said D.C. Council member Vincent Gray.
Gray, who chairs the council’s health committee, said he would hold an oversight hearing Nov. 20 focused on the bacterial contamination and water outage.
While water was down, the hospital used bottled water for drinking and cooking and patients used portable showers. Some used hand wipes for bathing.
According to the lawsuit, staff members had to manually flush toilets once or twice a day in units where more than two dozen people shared a single toilet.
“It is now critical for the court to intervene to ensure this kind of thing never happens again,” Hopkins said.
The lawsuit was filed against the District, Bazron and the CEO of St. Elizabeths, Mark Chastang.
It demands that D.C. have a plan for hospital operations in the event of future water problems. It also seeks a court order “requiring the District to sanitize the facility, to restore all services, and to assess the needs of patients” and to “implement all necessary treatment.”