Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
June 10, 2020
2 min read

Spread of COVID-19 in immigrant detention centers requires ‘urgent’ action

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
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In December 2018, Felipe Alonso Gomez died in an immigrant detention center after contracting influenza. Mark Travassos, MD, MSc, has been “alarmed” by the spread of infectious diseases in immigrant detention centers ever since.

Mark Travassos

“In 2019, thousands of detainees were quarantined as infections such as influenza and chickenpox spread in these facilities,” Travassos, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical pediatrics at the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told Healio. “The Department of Homeland Security has refused to provide immunizations for such vaccine-preventable illnesses in detention centers. Detainees are kept in crowded facilities with poor sanitation.”

As COVID-19 spread in the United States, the conditions in detention centers made them “ripe for outbreaks,” he continued.

According to Travassos, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigrant detention centers include facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ICE facilities are the only ones reporting COVID-19 infection rates, but ”the statistics are shocking.”

“As of June 8, there have been 1,623 COVID-19 cases in 59 facilities nationwide,” he said. “Disturbingly, more than half of detainees tested have been found to be positive. This is an extraordinarily high percentage.”

Travassos and John James Openshaw, MD, MSc, instructor of medicine – infectious diseases at Stanford University, published a viewpoint editorial in Clinical Infectious Diseases that reviews outbreaks of COVID-19 in federal immigrant detection centers. Specifically, they write that ICE policies “significantly differ” from CDC guidelines for the control, prevention and evaluation of COVID-19 in detention facilities, despite ICE statements that it complies with CDC recommendations.

Travassos told Healio that more needs to be done by ICE and ORR because its policies “actually promote disease spread.” In addition, ORR does not report COVID-19 testing results or provide any information on its prevention and treatment policies.

“This is frustrating, as the agency is responsible for the placement and care of unaccompanied minors,” he said. “There is one report of over 40 COVID-19 cases among unaccompanied minors at a facility in Chicago.”

It is “urgent” that the DHS adopt the CDC guidelines for the prevention and evaluation of COVID-19 in detention facilities, Travassos continued.

“COVID-19 is running rampant across its facilities, facilitated by inadequate infection control and prevention,” he said. “Only with the adoption of these scientifically based guidelines will DHS begin to get a handle on the control of these outbreaks and provide some measure of protection for one of our most vulnerable populations.”