Major coronavirus infection surges are being reported at crowded U.S. immigration centers, where the numbers of migrants have almost doubled in recent months while apprehensions at the border have gone up.
More than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in the centers between April and last week, reports The New York Times, and come while the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says more than than 26,000 people were being detained in its centers last week, compared to about 14,000 in April.
Public health officials say that few of the immigrants in the centers have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and say the overcrowded facilities are particularly susceptible to outbreaks.
The new cases account for more than 40% of all the cases reported in ICE facilities since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the New York Times' analysis of the agency's data.
Last year, the nation's prisons and jails were also major centers for outbreaks, as one in three inmates in state and federal facilities were testing positive for the virus, which infected and killed prisoners fast because of crowded, close quarters.
Meanwhile, according to ICE's latest available data, only about 20% of the detainees coming through the immigration centers had gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The centers are also not following COVID-19 safety protocols, said Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who has inspected centers during the pandemic.
"There is minimal to no accountability regarding their protocols," said Franco-Paredes, who observed, during a recent inspection at a facility in Aurora, Colo., that many staff members were not wearing masks properly. In addition, insufficient testing and lack of care during detainee transfers between facilities are causing problems, he said.
Meanwhile, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said all new detainees are tested for the virus and are being held in quarantine for 14 days when they come into the United States.
"On-site medical professionals are credited with reducing the risk of further spreading the disease by immediately testing, identifying, and isolating the exposed detainees to mitigate the spread of infection," Hughes said.
However, public health officials say detainees are being transported by bus to facilities before they're tested, and that they could be getting exposed while on the trip. Over the past year, prisons have also made the same error, leading to mass infections and deaths, The Times notes.
Meanwhile, ICE officials said the agency's policy leaves the decision about vaccinating the detainees up to state and local officials, not up to the federal government.
ICE detention centers located in states where vaccination efforts lag far below national averages have seen some of the worst outbreaks, including at the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.
ICE officials said the agency’s policy was to leave decisions about vaccinating detainees to state and local officials, and according to a Times database, some of the worst outbreaks have been in states where vaccination rates are far below the national average.
Sharon Dolovich, director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said detainees are going to be vulnerable until vaccinations are being made a higher priority at the ICE centers.
"You have people coming in and out of the facility, into communities where incomplete vaccination allows these variants to flourish, and then you bring them inside the facilities, and that variant will spread," she said. "What you’re describing is the combination of insufficient vaccination plus the evolution of the virus, and that is really scary."
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