When Mayor London Breed announced a strict shelter-in-place order on March 16 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, health facilities scrambled to identify ways to safely see patients. For addiction medicine doctors, this presented a particularly difficult challenge: Patients engaged in medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction must be seen frequently, often every few days. Regular doctor visits are not just helpful for people’s recovery but until that point had been required by the federal government for the dispensing of certain opioid addiction medications. As doctors across San Francisco switched to telehealth visits — talking to patients over the phone or through video chat — an unexpected shift took place. Missed appointments, a norm before the shelter-in-place order, became rare.
In late March, a cell phone video made by detainees was leaked to the public from Mesa Verde Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Bakersfield, Calif. Dozens of men in orange jumpsuits walked past the camera while Charles Joseph read a petition. “Many of us have underlying medical issues,” he said. “This turns our detention into a death sentence, because this pandemic requires social distancing and that is impossible in this environment. We request that you give us parole or bond so we may return to our families.”
Joseph’s plea caught the attention of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, which joined a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and two law firms — Lakin & Wille, and Cooley LLP — seeking the release of detained immigrants with pre-existing health concerns.