Hearst Connecticut file photo

HARTFORD, CT — Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he’d consider releasing people from state-run psychiatric hospitals to protect them from COVID-19 if there were places they could go to remain safe.

“It’s something I’ve got to look into,” Lamont said of a proposal by the executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project who is seeking an executive order to release as many people as possible from state-operated psychiatric facilities to protect them from exposure to the virus.

Lamont acknowledged that there would have to be stable housing for anyone who was released. But he said, “absolutely” he would consider it if places could be found “just like we’re doing for other communities.”

The non-profit organization represents any patient in a state-run psychiatric facility who needs legal help in accordance with a federal consent decree issued in 1989. Executive Director Kathy Flaherty told Lamont and Attorney General William Tong in a letter issued Saturday that the patients are at grave risk of contracting the disease which has killed more than 1,300 Connecticut residents since March 1 when the coronavirus pandemic began impacting the state.

“What makes me very nervous is that we know this virus spreads by people who aren’t showing symptoms,” Flaherty said. “Our folks are trapped in units with the only people who are going in and out are staff.”

The facilities are run by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services which has reported that 20 patients and 34 staff have laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of April 17. Health care union members who work at the facilities said last week that basic protections such as wards dedicated for those who test positive, protective gear, and social distancing aren’t being followed by the agency.

A representative from DMHAS and David Bednarz, a spokesman for Lamont, both said the letter is being reviewed. Tong’s office also is reviewing the letter, said Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for Tong’s Office.

The CLRP is asking Lamont to order DMHAS to release as many people as possible to community mental health service providers and to provide emergency funding for housing and other supports.

Those who should be released include patients who have been voluntarily committed and those who have been committed by probate court and through criminal proceedings, Flaherty said. As part of the release process all patients should be evaluated to determine if they still require in-patient care or if they can receive help in the community, she said.

The CLRP also wants the agency to stop all new admissions to all state-run psychiatric facilities and review the commitments of those who are under the purview of the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board which evaluates when those who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity can be released.

“We have some serious concerns,” Flaherty said. “The board is made up of political appointees and those in public safety, but it runs counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act which defines people’s right to treatment in the least restrictive setting.”

Often those who are committed to a facility and under the board’s review spend years longer in a psychiatric ward after committing a crime than if they had pleaded guilty to charges, Flaherty said. “If they had pleaded guilty and gone to prison, the Department of Correction has good time credits and you know your release date when you enter the system,” Flaherty said.

The non-profit is also asking for the release of people who have been committed to state-run psychiatric facilities while receiving treatment to regain competency to stand trial for non-violent felonies, class D felonies and all misdemeanors. Flaherty is also recommending DMHAS test for COVID-19 any criminal defendant charged with a felony who is not competent at the present but who is restorable to competency before they are admitted to Whiting Forensic Hospital. Those who test positive should be treated at a DOC facility or according to protocols for treatment at Whiting Forensic Hospital, she said.

Flaherty told Lamont and Tong that aggressive testing to determine who has the disease should take place at all state-run psychiatric facilities so that staff and patients with COVID-19 can be properly treated and isolated.

“We received the letter and are reviewing it,” said Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for Tong’s Office.

DHMAS did stop all family visits, which CLRP supports in light of the threat of the pandemic, Flaherty said. The agency also made more tablets and technology available so that patients can still remain connected to family, she said.

But ultimately the state is responsible for the patients in their care, she told Lamont and Tong.

“The state has a moral and legal obligation to ensure the health, welfare and safety of all patients in all state facilities and that each person is treated in the least restrictive setting,” Flaherty said. “The COVID-19 pandemic makes this legal obligation an emergency and crisis. Please take immediate action before patients die from the virus.”