Judge extends order blocking move of coronavirus patients to Costa Mesa

An effort by U.S. health authorities to move about 10 coronavirus patients to the former Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa was put on hold for another week Monday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton had granted an emergency temporary restraining order Friday, when city officials filed court papers saying they were not notified in advance of the plans and wanted assurances that an adequate study had been done to determine if the site is safe to house the patients.

At the time, city officials said they were told up to 50 patients could be taken to the facility, which is owned by the state and is in the process of shutting down as a caretaker for clients with developmental disabilities.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Beck, however, told Staton the government required 10 units with bathrooms for likely 10 patients, although the number could be lower if there's a couple included in the group. The patients would have tested positive for the virus but have not shown symptoms yet.

When Staton questioned attorneys for the state and federal governments how officials determined the center was suitable to house patients with the virus she was told a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official had visited the site Monday and concluded it was OK for quarantining patients.

Staton also questioned speculation by the city's attorney Jennifer Keller that federal authorities turned away from consideration of a site in Alabama as a favor from President Donald Trump.

The state and federal attorneys said California officials requested to house some of the California residents brought into the country from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, where an attempt was made to quarantine them there before federal officials cut it short and flew them back to the United States.

Staton noted 328 were flown in from the cruise ship and 14 tested positive for the virus. Some were taken to Travis Air Force Base in Northern California while others were taken to Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, she said.

State health officials were concerned about making some of the elderly patients make an additional trip from California to Alabama.

Department of Defense officials said any of the patients who have fallen ill to the virus and required hospitalization cannot return to the military bases, so authorities have had to look elsewhere to house them in a quarantine, which lasts about two weeks, or containment, which lasts closer to a month.

At issue is the suitability of the site in Costa Mesa, where all of the patients of the center have been moved out. City officials argue that a week and a half ago it was deemed "dilapidated" and unsuitable to be converted to a homeless shelter unless about $25 million in renovations, which would take two years, were done.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, announced on Sunday that Trump assured him none of the Americans from the cruise ship will be housed in a FEMA facility in Anniston, Alabama.

"What's happened here is California doesn't have the pull to be taken off the list but Alabama does," Keller said in a hearing on Monday afternoon.

Keller argued that Orange County is a "massive tourism hub" that includes destination points such as Disneyland and that housing the patients here would "kill the economy" locally.

In court Monday afternoon, government attorneys said the facility had been inspected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Monday morning and determined it to be a suitable location. But Staton opted to extend her restraining order for another week, and she asked attorneys on both sides to meet and try to reach an agreement.

Staton scheduled another hearing for next Monday. She urged state and federal authorities to update city officials on the plans, including what would be done to monitor staff who look after the patients in Costa Mesa.

Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Eisenberg argued that the city lacked any legal standing to sue to block the move in federal court. However, Staton said it might be possible the city could argue a nuisance claim, but she also acknowledged the city does not have a "veto" on what the state and federal governments decide.

Deputy Attorney General Darin Wessel argued there is growing concern among officials in Northern California's Sonoma County, which includes Travis Air Force Base. There was some discussion about sending some of the patients who required hospitalization back to their homes, where it would more difficult to monitor them, he said.

About 15 of 67 patients at Travis Air Force Base were hospitalized, Wessel said. Fifty-seven patients were taken to a CDC site in Nebraska.

Keller said there was a "credibility issue" with state and federal officials as she argued local officials were told Thursday evening the plan was to start moving patients in to the Costa Mesa facility as early as Sunday and that staff there was instructed to have rooms ready for occupation by then.

"I'm very concerned we'll get a lot more `I don't know, we can't say, get out of the way, we know better,' " Keller told Staton.

But the judge urged all of the officials to meet in "good faith," and added at the end of the hearing, "Keep in mind we're all in this together" in California.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley told reporters after the hearing, "There's just something not right... the information we're getting is not credible."

She added, "I think we're being failed by the state and federal governments. It was a bipartisan effort."

The coronovirus, known as COVID-19, has killed roughly 2,600 people, the vast majority in China, particularly in the area of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Nearly 80,000 cases have been reported worldwide.

According to the CDC's website, "Imported cases of COVID-19 in travelers have been detected in the U.S. Person-to-person spread of COVID-19 also has been seen among close contacts of returned travelers from Wuhan, but at this time, this virus is NOT currently spreading in the community in the United States."

In court papers, attorneys for the federal government responded to the Costa Mesa lawsuit by calling it an "ill-informed and legally baseless application" that "endangers the safety and well-being of the American people."

"Public health experts at all levels of federal and state government need to spend their time and efforts addressing the COVID-19 outbreak and protecting the health and safety of our communities. ... Plaintiffs' efforts have only increased the likelihood of the threats to public health that they seek to avoid."

Orange County Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick said she hoped "we can engage in a more thoughtful and robust collaboration with our colleagues at the state and federal level to ensure the health and safety of Orange County residents is protected and next steps are clearly communicated to the public."