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Questions Linger in Wake of St. Elizabeths Water Crisis

From the very moment District government officials shut down St. Elizabeths Hospital’s contaminated water supply, individuals confined to sleeping quarters in the Congress Heights psychiatric facility relied on more than 54,000 water bottles and 160 5-gallon jugs for drinking, cooking, hand-washing and showering.

The 28-day ordeal evoked memories of similar situations in Flint, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; Uniontown, Alabama; and other majority-Black communities where the crumbling infrastructure, contaminated water and unsanitary conditions brought life to a standstill and highlighted glaring racial inequities.

Even in the aftermath of the contamination and protracted water outage, some St. Elizabeths staff members, like one who spoke to The Informer anonymously, haven’t stopped asking questions about how legionella and pseudomonas entered the water system, and what more could’ve been done to help the nearly 300 individuals on the campus.

“The folks at the hospital didn’t communicate in a really good way. The water had been contaminated since Sept. 18 but we didn’t find out until the 26th,” said the St. Elizabeths employee of more than five years who spoke on background out of fear of retaliation from her employer or the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH).

Between Sept. 27 and Oct. 23 when DBH cleared St. Elizabeths water supply as safe for use, neither the employee nor her colleagues received administrative leave. Though she would later commend St. Elizabeths officials for hosting weekly staff debriefings, she contended that the higher-ups never acknowledged concerns about whether employees should consult their doctors about their exposure to pathogens.

This employee also lamented not receiving much guidance on what to tell patients.
“It was bad for us because we work with the individuals one on one,” she said. “When they ask questions, it feels bad to tell them that you as a staff person just found out. There are a lot of concerns around people being sick because there have been a lot of folks who had been drinking the water.”

Bacteria found in the water supply can cause coughing, shortness of breath, headaches and muscle pains. It’s also of particular harm to people with compromised immune systems. St. Elizabeths’ recent water contamination, the second in three years, comes more than a year after a DC Office of the Auditor report revealed a waitlist backlog and service gaps at the facility.

To the chagrin of some local activists, the D.C. Council Committee on Health postponed a public hearing, originally scheduled for October 23, at the request of DBH Director Barbara Bazron who cited a family emergency.

In April, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) appointed Bazron as leader of the agency cited for financial mismanagement and a poor response to opioid addiction in the District. Months into her tenure, Bazron faces a federal class-action lawsuit of her own.

The suit, filed by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and ACLU-DC on behalf of four patients, also implicated St. Elizabeths Hospital CEO Mark Chastang and the D.C. government. It alleges that in the days after officials announced the water outage, patients and staff had to manually flush toilets up to twice a day, oftentimes in suites where more than two dozen individuals shared a latrine. When they couldn’t use the portable shower, patients had been confined to body wipes or a bucket of soapy water and washcloth.

After several days without any running water, individuals made treks to outdoor portable showers and toilets that didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Over 28 days, they received drastic cuts to treatments, services and amenities, even as the psychiatric hospital admitted new patients.

“We’re hoping that the lawsuit will make sure the services are restored and the facility is up and running,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “We want to make sure that patients have their mental health needs met. They have endured a lot of trauma in the last 28 days. This is the second time in three years, and we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

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