As of March 7, US immigration officials have quarantined at least 2,287 migrants carrying everything from mumps to chickenpox, according to Reuters, citing an ICE official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
ICE health officials have been notified of 236 confirmed or probable cases of mumps among detainees in 51 facilities in the past 12 months, compared to no cases detected between January 2016 and February 2018. Last year, 423 detainees were determined to have influenza and 461 to have chicken pox. All three diseases are largely preventable by vaccine. -Reuters
"When there is just one person who is sick, everybody pays," said 19-year-old Christian Mejia, who was put on lockdown in rural Louisiana's Pine Prairie immigration detention center along with hundreds of other detainees. According to internal emails reviewed by Reuters, outbreaks such as the one in Louisiana are difficult to manage, as immigrant detainees are often shuttled around the country, and many diseases don't necessarily show symptoms during the contagious phase.
Since January, the 1,094-bed Pine Prairie facility has had 18 detainees with confirmed or probable cases of mumps compared to no cases in 2018, according to ICE. As of mid-February, 288 people were under quarantine at Pine Prairie. Mejia said his quarantine ended on Feb. 25. -Reuters
Disturbingly, emails reveal that the warden at Pine Prairie decided not to quarantine 40 new arrivals from Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, despite concerns raised by the medical staff. Warden Indalecio Ramos - who referred Reuters' outbreak-related questions to ICE and the GEO Group, which owns the facility - said in a Feb. 7 email that quarantining detainees would prevent them from attending their immigration court hearings.
Two weeks later, ICE requested that Pine Prairie medical staff clear a quarantined detainee for travel, referring to him as a "high profile removal scheduled for deport." Warden Ramos wrote in an email later that day that medical staff wanted to exclude the detainee from transfer, however "ICE wants him to travel out of the country anyway ... Please ensure he leaves."
An ICE spokesman said that people who have been exposed to diseases but are asymptomatic can travel, while anyone known to be contagious cannot.
On Feb. 28, ten Democratic members of Congress sent ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello to inquire about viral disease outbreaks at immigration detention centers in Texas, Arizona and Colorado. Pine Prairie outbreak was not mentioned.
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for The GEO Group, the private prison operator that runs Pine Prairie under government contract, said its medical professionals follow standards set by ICE and health authorities. He said medical care provided to detainees allows the company “to detect, treat and follow appropriate medical protocols to manage an infectious outbreak.” -Reuters
Of note, while last year's high-profile migrant caravans accounted for a fraction of overall border crossings, in November Fox News reported that out of 6,000 migrants residing in Tijuana, more than 1/3 of them were being treated for health-related issues, including hepatitis, infections, three cases of tuberculosis and four cases of chickenpox.
The first cases at Pine Prairie were detected in January in four migrants who had been recently transferred from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, according to internal emails.
Tallahatchie, run by private detention company CoreCivic, has had five confirmed cases of mumps and 18 cases of chicken pox since January, according to company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. She said no one who was diagnosed was transferred out of the facility while the disease was active.
Tallahatchie houses hundreds of migrants recently apprehended along the U.S.- Mexico border, ICE officials said. -Reuters
"We are seeing migrants arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers," said US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan last Tuesday. He added that changing demographics on the southwest border - which has seen more immigrants from Central America traveling long distances, has raised health concerns and overwhelmed border officials.
Several other detention centers in other states have also seen a rise in outbreaks. Texas facilities have seen at least 186 cases of mumps since October - the largest outbreak in years among detention centers, according to Texas Department of State Health Services press officer Lara Anton.
In Colorado, the GEO-Group-run Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver has seen 357 people quarantined after eight confirmed and five suspected cases of mumps detected since February - along with six chickenpox cases diagnosed in early January, according to Dr. Bernadette Albanese from the Tri COunty Health Department in Colorado.
That said, vaccination rates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are above 90% according to the CDC, while ICE detainees come from all over the world.