Judge orders coronavirus testing to begin at immigration facility

‘This outbreak could have been avoided’: Judge orders coronavirus testing to begin ‘immediately’ at immigration detention facility where more than half are positive and officials intentionally did not test detainees

  •  Officials at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center have been ordered to immediately administer COVID-19 tests to all detainees and staff
  • Staff will be tested during their next shift and undergo testing weekly
  • More than half of current detainees have contracted the virus 
  • ICE officials had previously not tested  all detainees for COVID-19 over ‘housing restrictions’ 
  • An outbreak was reported at the Mesa Verde Center earlier this month
  • California has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot in the United States 

A San Francisco federal judge ordered that all individuals at an immigration center be tested for COVID-19 immediately as more than half contracted the virus and it was revealed officials intentionally refused to conduct tests. 

On Friday, around 40 of the 104 detained residents at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Baskersfield had tested positive for COVID-19. 

By Saturday, that number had risen by 11 to at least 54 detainees infected since initial tests were ordered early last week. 

District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ordered that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to administer quick-result testing to all detainees and staff who remain at the Mesa Verde center, Los Angeles Times reports.

‘I’m ordering that it be done immediately, and nobody stop working until they’re completed,’ Chhabria told ICE lawyers and GEO Group, the private contractor in charge of the facility.

Emi MacLean, Deputy Public Defender of San Francisco, said the federal judge based his decision on the ‘deliberate indifference’ of ICE and GEO Group.

A San Francisco federal judge ordered that all detainees and staff at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Baskersfield, California (pictured) be tested for coronavirus

A San Francisco federal judge ordered that all detainees and staff at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Baskersfield, California (pictured) be tested for coronavirus

‘There’s no question that this outbreak could have been avoided,’ said Chhabria. 

Earlier this month, a COVID-19 outbreak struck the detention center as two entire dorms were exposed to the virus. As many as 69 detainees from those dorms were isolated as a result. 

Chhabria’s ruling also required that the 140 employees as Mesa Verde center undergo tests that begin with their next shift and will continue weekly.

A cohort of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern and Southern California, filed a class-action lawsuit in April against ICE and GEO Group.

Those groups have taken legal action on behalf of the detainees, who they said have been mistreated by officials who refused to implement public health guidelines.

Pictured: An inmate sews protective masks at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California, where cases have risen across the state

Pictured: An inmate sews protective masks at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, California, where cases have risen across the state 

A lawsuit by a group of organizations has been filed on behalf of detainees against ICE and GEO Group to ensure proper health protocols are met. Pictured: Inmates gather outside of tents at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Terminal Island prison in this aerial photograph taken above Los Angeles

A lawsuit by a group of organizations has been filed on behalf of detainees against ICE and GEO Group to ensure proper health protocols are met. Pictured: Inmates gather outside of tents at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Terminal Island prison in this aerial photograph taken above Los Angeles

‘They are acting with deliberate indifference toward the lives of people detained in these facilities, and potentially further exposing individuals,’ ACLU Attorney Angelica Salceda told Bakersfield.com.

‘In these facilities, people are not able to engage in social distancing, they don’t have the appropriate protective equipment, for example, to protect themselves, there are many medically vulnerable individuals who continue to be detained.’

The lawsuit originally sought to make sure ICE and GEO group were taking the necessary precautions to ensure detainees’ health.

As hearings continued, ICE reportedly insisted that they only test detained individuals who showed symptoms and said none had so far.

But in June, a staff member obtained a COVID-19 test outside of work and proved positive. As many as 14 others would eventually report positive results taken outside of the Mesa Verde center.

Pictured: Emir MacLean: 'The detention center is not safe for anyone who is there'

Pictured: Emir MacLean: ‘The detention center is not safe for anyone who is there’

The first confirmed COVID-19 infection of a detainee was recorded on July 31.

The Mesa Verde center, which at the time housed 350 individuals, had reduced the number of individuals to around 120 at that time.

‘Then the real crisis started,’ said MacLean. ‘They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t act.’

However, a crisis was already in the works because of officials’ apparent refusal to provide testing because of ‘housing restrictions,’ LA Times reports.

In an email, Janese Mull, the acting field office director in at ICE’s San Francisco office, said agency lawyers had suggested Mesa Verde center conduct universal testing for all detainees. 

Brooke Sanchez Othon, a clinical operations specialist who’s healthcare company provided services to ICE, dismissed the notion all together. 

Sanchez Othon reportedly told Mill that the proposal to test all detained individuals was already denied ‘due to the housing restrictions we face.’ 

‘Testing all detainees will potentially cause the same housing issue we had last week but on a larger scale,’ she wrote.

‘Completing the testing is not the issue it is just what we will need to do with the results once they are received.’    

A healthcare official pushed back at the idea of conducting COVID-19 tests on detainees because of 'housing restrictions'. Pictured: A Sheriff's deputy and on-site nurse give medications to an inmate at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility

A healthcare official pushed back at the idea of conducting COVID-19 tests on detainees because of ‘housing restrictions’. Pictured: A Sheriff’s deputy and on-site nurse give medications to an inmate at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility

Pictured: An inmate cleans a jail cell at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California, amid a surge in cases

Pictured: An inmate cleans a jail cell at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, California, amid a surge in cases

Part of the problem with only administering COVID-19 tests when patients are symptomatic is that it completely ignores the asymptomatic variable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 40 per cent of infections are asymptomatic and the infectiousness of asymptomatic individuals relative to symptomatic was 75 per cent.

MacLean added that symptomatic detainees were placed in one dorm, while all others were ushered into a separate another – including those who who had been exposed. 

‘The detention center is not safe for anyone who is there,’ said MacLean.

‘The level of inaction and lack of concern for the individuals in their custody is stunning and outrageous.’

As of Sunday, ICE reports the Mesa Verde center of having 13 current cases under isolation, but the data was last updated Thursday and don’t appear to show the numbers from Friday. 

Of the more than 13,500 undocumented immigrants tested for COVID-19, around 3,567 have tested positive. 

The facility first began testing the first week of August, but those test results have not come back.

California is one of several states that has become overwhelmed by its testing process that has concerning lags in reporting and results.

Recently, another round of COVID-19 testing at the Mesa Verde center found that out of 70 individuals, 32 were confirmed positive.

‘We are really scared that we will never return to our families outside,’ Hugo Lucas, a current Mesa Verde detainee, told lawyers, LA Times reports.

‘I have my daughter who is 14 years old, and I can’t tell her what’s going on because I’m too scared for her,’ he added. 

The organizations backing the lawsuit said they will keep pressuring ICE and GEO Group to improve the safety and health conditions inside the facility.

‘If ICE and GEO can’t guarantee the basic safety of the people in their custody, through regular testing and adequate medical care, we need to consider whether they should be allowed to detain anyone at all,’ said ACLU Northern California senior attorney Sean Riordan.

As of Sunday, California has recorded more than 622,000 cases and 11,200 deaths since January. 

There are 7,873 new cases, 77 new deaths and currently 5,027 hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

More than 1,600 patients have been placed in intensive care units.

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