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Coronavirus Crisis: 85% of ICE Detainees Tested are Positive for Covid-19

ICE recently announced that it has tested 995 of its 30,737 detainees as of April 21 and of those, 449 have tested positive. Of the 1.38 percent of the detainees that have been tested,  about 85 percent were positive, with the largest number of cases (94) occurring at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California., according to ICE reports.

“One of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) highest priorities is the health and safety of those in our custody,” ICE said in a statement on Wednesday. “Detainees are being monitored and tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidance, and in conjunction with the recommendations of state and local health partners.”

However, the Miami Herald reports that health experts say U.S. immigration officials are violating federal guidelines by grouping hundreds of inmates together if they’ve been exposed or have symptoms. It’s a process ICE calls “comforting,”  which they describe as an alternative to self-monitoring at home.

ICE “directly contradicts [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance in several ways, including, most critically, that ICE officials describe cohorting as the planned response to a known COVID-19 exposure, not a practice of last resort,” said Joseph Shin, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, a founding member of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, and past medical director for the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, in a sworn statement that is part of the lawsuit.

On the ICE Covid-19 guidance page, it states they isolate detainees who exhibit symptoms for “a specified time period,” and its medical staff also monitors detainees who are at-risk for 14 days.

Since the latest reports indicate that a little less than two percent of detainees have been tested since the first  ICE detainee Covid-19 case was reported on March 24, advocacy organizations have criticized the lack of proactive steps taken by ICE.

“Testing barely 1 percent of people in the weeks since then demonstrates a shocking level of negligence on the part of ICE, and a near-total disregard for the health and safety of the people it is detaining,” Policy Analyst at American Immigration Council Aaron Reichlin-Melnick told the publication Roll Call. “If almost a third of people tested have been infected with COVID-19, that suggests that the real numbers are likely far higher.”

ICE has suspended social visitation in all of its detention facilities for now though detainees are still allowed to meet with their lawyers in person. They’ve also released nearly 700 detainees who were over 60 and had underlying medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to the coronavirus but with only a small percentage tested, there’s no way to determine how many detainees have Covid-19 so containing the spread in close quarters is unlikely.

People in detention centers are sitting ducks for the spread of this virus,” Andrea Flores, the deputy director of policy for the American Civil Liberties Union told CNN. “The same experts have also predicted that once outbreaks in detention centers begin, they will spread rapidly. The suffering and death that will occur is unnecessary and preventable.”