DC settles with St. Elizabeth’s patients after 28-day water outage

Four patients at D.C.’s St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital who lived without water for 28 days and filed suit over the conditions have reached a settlement with the city.

As part of the settlement, the city must rewrite its emergency protocols, including how it will evacuate patients to another hospital if something like this happens again.

In late September 2019, the Department of Behavioral Health alerted the hospital’s 270 patients and 700 staff members that lab testing found pseudomonas and legionella bacteria in the water supply.

Despite flushing the system with chlorine, it was tough to clear. As a result, the water didn’t come back on for 28 days.

The complaint, filed in October 2019, detailed how the bacteria purging issue led to overflowing toilets, forced outdoor group showers and limited the serving of hot food.

The suit also alleged that the hospital continued to accept patients despite the lack of running water.

“When the COVID pandemic hit in the wake of the water crisis, the District failed to put into place basic infection control measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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. Elizabeth’s contracting COVID was 40 times the risk for a person living in the community,” said Gregg Kelley, with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The water outage also limited access to types of therapy for the hospital’s patients, the suit said.

In the settlement, the District agreed to provide documentation that the water contamination was remediated, maintain a supply of personal protective equipment for patients and staff, and keep an agreement with other hospitals to ensure they can accept St. Elizabeth’s patients in an emergency.

It also required improved communication between hospital patients and staff during an emergency.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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