As their populations grow to near pre-pandemic levels, U.S. immigration prisons are reporting a sharp rise in coronavirus infections among inmates.
Public health officials note that few inmates are vaccinated against the virus and warn that the increasingly crowded facilities can be fertile ground for outbreaks.
The number of migrants held in detention centers has almost doubled in recent months as border concerns have risen, according to immigration and customs officials. More than 26,000 people were detained last week, compared to about 14,000 in April.
According to an analysis of the New York Times ICE data, more than 7,500 new coronavirus cases were reported at the centers during the same period, accounting for more than 40 percent of all cases reported in ICE facilities since the pandemic began.
Prisons and prisons in America were breeding grounds for the virus last year, with nearly one in three inmates testing positive in state and state facilities. The virus infected and killed prisoners faster than in nearby populations as the crowd and other factors provided ideal conditions for Covid to spread.
In May, according to the latest available data from ICE, only about 20 percent of inmates who passed the centers had received at least one dose of vaccine while in detention.
Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who inspected immigration prisons during the pandemic, said several factors were responsible for the increase, including the transfer of detainees between facilities, inadequate testing, and negligence on Covid- 19 security measures.
For example, during a recent inspection at a center in Aurora, Colorado, he said he saw many employees not wearing face coverings properly and added, “There is minimal to no responsibility for their logs.”
Paige Hughes, an ICE spokeswoman, said all new inmates had been tested for the coronavirus and would be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.
“Local medical professionals are credited with reducing the risk of the disease spreading further by immediately testing, identifying and isolating the exposed inmates to help contain the spread of the infection,” she said.
Even so, public health officials have advised that detainees may be bus transported to the facilities prior to the examination and exposed during the journey. Similar failures of prison systems over the past year have resulted in mass infections and deaths.
ICE officials said the agency’s policy is to leave decisions about vaccinating detainees to state and local officials. Some of the worst outbreaks at ICE facilities, including one at the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Missouri, have been in states where vaccination rates are well below the national average, according to a Times database.
As concerns grow over the spread of the more easily transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, Sharon Dolovich, law professor and director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said inmates would remain prone to outbreaks until officials were given vaccinations given these locations a higher priority.
“You have people going in and out of the facility in communities where incomplete vaccination allows these varieties to thrive, and then you bring them into the facilities and that variety will spread,” said Dr. Dolovich. “What you’re describing is the combination of inadequate vaccination and the development of the virus, and that’s really scary.”