Leaders in Costa Mesa, California, said Saturday they were kept in the dark until the last minute about plans by federal health agencies to transfer dozens of coronavirus patients to an empty building in their city in a move they said could put the entire region at risk.
The Southern California city was granted a restraining order Friday night by a federal judge to temporarily halt the relocation of up to 50 patients from Travis Air Force Base in Northern California to the Fairview Developmental Center. In its request for the order, the city cited concern that the building is located in a densely populated area surrounded by schools, golf courses and homes.
“We are all united in addressing what we think is a public health crisis right here in our community,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said.
In a news conference Saturday, local elected officials chided the federal government for its lack of transparency about how the site was chosen, how many patients would be transferred and what federal agency made the decision.
“It is clear there has been a tremendous breakdown in communication,” said Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif. “We deserve to know who made this decision.”
Foley, a Democrat who is running for a seat in the state Legislature, accused federal health agencies of moving too quickly and not coordinating with local officials. She said it remained unclear whether local hospitals would be called on to help or how many patients would be relocated to Costa Mesa.
“We have more unanswered questions than we have answers at this time,” she said.
Last year, the state, which owns the property, surveyed the site as a potential temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness but found it would need $25 million in renovations to meet standards.
In her ruling granting the temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton cited the potential for “irreparable harm that is likely in the absence of [legal] relief.” She scheduled an expedited hearing for Monday afternoon.
“I just don’t want this,” Costa Mesa resident William Hart said.
Hart said he lives about 1,000 feet from Fairview and has two children plus a third on the way and he’s worried about what could happen to his family if something goes wrong at the center.
“The whole thing seems really fishy,” he said.
Hart was among dozens of residents who attended the news conference following a closed-door meeting officials held to discuss the issue. Many people in the audience applauded the temporary restraining order and several held signs that read “No coronavirus in Costa Mesa.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of five federal agencies named as defendants in the restraining order request, referred questions to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which did not return calls and emails seeking comment Saturday.
Officials in Alabama also said Saturday that they were not given advance notice by the federal government about plans to relocate patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Two people who were aboard the ship recently died from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said the Department of Health and Human Services notified him Saturday of its intention to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, about one hour east of of Birmingham, to host patients who tested positive for COVID-19.
The patients either had not shown symptoms or had “mild flu-like symptoms,” HHS said in a statement. It did not say how many passengers would be moved to the FEMA center.
But unlike the Costa Mesa facility, Anniston’s center is better equipped to treat patients. It has hosted large groups of professionals from federal, state and local emergency management agencies, hospitals, public health agencies and law enforcement agencies on disaster response.
Draper said federal health officials assured him the patients would not “affect” his community and the patients would remain quarantined until they are medically cleared of carrying the virus.