Despite efforts the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it has implemented to prevent spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities, detainees are still infected at a much higher rate than the rest of the country.
Researchers analyzed data from 92 of the nation’s 135 ICE detention centers and found the case rate among detainees was on average more than 13 times the rate of the U.S. population each month from April to August, according to the report published late last month in JAMA Open Network.
Case rates surpassed those in U.S. federal and state prisons, which were 5.5 times higher than in the general population from March 31 to June 6, according to a July research letter published in JAMA.
The numbers are alarming, but study authors and experts say COVID-19 spread in ICE detention facilities may be worse. Lack of data transparency, minimal testing and anecdotal reports of inconsistent compliance with health guidelines suggest case numbers could be much higher.
“We have an incomplete picture of what’s happening with testing,” said study author and Harvard Medical School student Dr. Parsa Erfani. “(But) it’s hard to stand by and just look the other way.”
ICE said in a statement to USA TODAY it is dedicated to the health and safety of all individuals in its custody and has taken steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including reducing the number of detainees in custody, suspending social visitation and incorporating social distancing practices.
For the study, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital researchers calculated monthly tests and case rates per 100,000 people using the average monthly population of detainees in detention facilities.
While case rates were publicly made available by ICE, study authors concede testing rates may be less accurate as the agency only reports the numbers of detainees tested, not the number of tests given.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends maintaining detention capacity at each facility at or below 75%. Study authors said ICE reduced its population from February to August by 45% to try to decrease COVID-19 spread.
Still, cases continued to increase, with 20 of the 92 facilities that provided data accounting for about 71% of the cases from April to August, said study author Dr. Katherine Peeler, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a medical expert for Physicians for Human Rights.
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ICE data shows a total of 7,084 confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees. La Palma Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona, had the highest number of infections since the pandemic, with 450 detainees testing positive.
Experts, however, say these numbers aren’t enough to show an accurate picture of COVID-19 spread in detention facilities as testing data is complete, especially among detainees who leave the facilities.
“The stakes are much higher and we don’t really know the full extent of it,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Center. “ICE reporting on COVID is quite suspect because we don’t have an idea of people who contracted the virus and then died after release.”
Many of ICE detention facilities are run by private contractors. The La Palma facility is owned and operated by CoreCivic, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the country. It said it followsguidance of local, state and federal health authorities as well as government partners and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The health and safety of the individuals entrusted to our care and our staff is the top priority for CoreCivic,” CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said in a statement. “This commitment is shared by our government partners and we have worked closely together with them to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.”
Peeler said facilities should be testing all detainees on a routine basis instead of just testing new arrivals during screening or detainees who show symptoms.
Mass testing of asymptomatic individuals is a strategy used by institutions such as nursing homes and universities to monitor COVID-19 spread, but ICE has only tested asymptomatic detainees on two occasions in June: once in Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington, and once in Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado.
“It’s crazy to me because living in a detention center is such a higher risk space for infectious disease spread than universities,” Erfani said.
Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, says frequent testing is one of the best ways to prevent spread and outbreaks in these facilities.
“Unless we’re wanting to give people who are detained by ICE death sentences … we should absolutely be doing everything we can to protect them,” he said. “Not providing means to stop the spread in those locations is a national travesty. It’s a stain on our country.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.