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DWN Report Shows ICE Facilities Were Community Superspreaders of COVID-19

As of November 19, 2020, ICE had reported 7,339 of the 62,080 detainees tested in its 221 facilities were positive for
COVID-19. Eight of detainees had succumbed to the virus. The positive cases among the detainees accounted for less than 3% of the COVID-19 cases attributed to ICE.

According to the report by DWN, the ICE pandemic response has been criticized as negligent and ineffective—disregarding the risks it posed to the detainees, staff and civilian populations. For instance, ICE failed to provide sufficient soap and personal protection equipment (PPE) to detainees and staff, moved detainees between facilities during the pandemic without quarantining, refused to test all detainees, and deported infected detainees without testing them.

Locations that have best dealt with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic have followed a straightforward protocol of hand washing, masking, social distancing, testing, quarantining, and contact tracing. Following that protocol, several countries have virtually eliminated new COVID-19 cases.

Of course, social distancing is difficult in a detention setting. The only practical method is to release many detainees so that those remaining can socially distance. The vast majority of ICE detainees have no history of violence and are not being held on criminal charges, but are detained solely pursuant to civil immigration violations. There is a strong argument that releasing many of the nonviolent, noncriminal ICE detainees would permit those remaining to socially distance and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in ICE facilities. Yet ICE has steadfastly refused to release detainees as a pandemic-amelioration measure and has even ignored court orders to do so.

Testing for COVID-19 at ICE facilities has been spotty at best. For instance, the ICE Processing Center at Bakersfield, California rejected universal testing because it would be too difficult to isolate all of the detainees who were expected to test positive. This led to criticism both that ICE was facilitating the spread of the virus among detainees and deporting detainees who were infected with COVID-19—further spreading the virus.

It is important to note the difference between isolation and quarantine. You isolate people who are infected, you quarantine people who have been exposed to people who are infected. Those in quarantine are released after a certain number of days without showing symptoms or a negative test result. Those in isolation are released after a certain number of days following the abatement of symptoms. Contact tracing is used to determine who was exposed to an infected person—checking to see who had been around that person in the recent past. According to the DWN report, ICE tries to isolate known infected persons, but does little in the way of quarantining and virtually no contact tracing.

The report showed that, during spring 2020, counties with ICE detention facilities reported COVID-19 cases earlier in the pandemic than those without. As the pandemic progressed, those counties and nearby counties in the same multicounty economic area (MEA) were at increased risk of larger outbreaks—showing a faster spread of COVID-19.

The DWN report makes clear that ICE facilities, like jails and prisons, are not isolated from the communities in which they are located. Some detainees are eventually released into the community. Staff go in and out daily and are likely to live in a nearby community. Thus, an ICE detention facility can easily spread COVID-19 into the adjoining communities.

This increased risk of COVID-19 in the counties hosting ICE facilities is quantifiable. In April 2020, 69% of counties with one or fewer ICE detainees (0-1 counties) had at least one COVID-19 case, compared with 81% of counties with two or more ICE detainee (2+ counties). By May 2020, 80% of 0-1 counties had more than two cases, compared to 89% of 2+ counties. That month, 53% of 0-1 counties had significant outbreaks of more than 15 cases, compared to 60% of 2+ counties, while 13% of 0-1 counties had serious outbreaks of over 250 cases, compared to 18% of 2+ counties, and 2% of 0-1 counties had major outbreaks of over 2,500 cases, compared to 4% of 2+ counties. Put another way, the presence of an ICE facility doubled a county’s likelihood of having a major outbreak in May 2020, while increasing its likelihood of having a serious or significant outbreak by about 40% and 15%, respectively.

The presence of an ICE facility in a MEA did not make it more likely that an initial case would be reported earlier in the pandemic, but significantly increased the likelihood of a larger outbreak. For example, in May 2020, 50.8% of MEAs with 25 ICE detainees or less (0-25 MEAs) had more than 15 cases of COVID-19 compared to 55.8% of MEAs with 26 or more ICE detainees (26+ MEAs). Likewise, 21.4% of 0-25 MEAs reported significant outbreaks of over 100 cases compared to 24.7% of 26+ MEAs while 12.3% of 0-25 MEAs reported serious outbreaks of over 250 cases compared to 14.2% of 26+ MEAs and 1.5% of 0-25 MEAs reported major outbreaks of over 2,500 cases compared to 3.0% of 26+ MEAs. Put another way, the presence of an ICE facility within a MEA doubled the likelihood of a major outbreak and notably increased the likelihood of significant or serious outbreaks.

ICE uses 221 dedicated and non-dedicated detention facilities, most of which are privately operated. 157 counties have two or more ICE detainees with a median number of 60 detainees. 2,983 of the 3,140 counties in the U.S. have one or no ICE detainees. However, 1,345 counties are located in MEAs where more than 25 ICE detainees are held with a median number of 245 detainees. Thus, nearly 43% of U.S. counties are at increased risk of larger community outbreaks of COVID-19 because of ICE. The risk grows with an increased ICE detainee population. An MEA’s increase in the baseline COVID-19 rate of 791/100,000 residents is 0% for five detainees, 0.8% (7/100,000) for 131 detainees, 5.0% (39/100,000) for 785 detainees, 8.9% (70/100,000) for 1,376 detainees and 20.2% (159/100,000) for 2,959 detainees.

The DWN report calculated that the states hit hardest by the ICE COVID-19 increase are California (111,416 additional cases, 285/100,000 residents rate increase), Texas (35,564 cases, 128/100,000), Arizona (28,794 cases, 415/100,000) and Florida (19,907 cases, 97/100,000). Among MEAs, the worst ICE increases were at Los Angeles-Long Breach-Riverside (544 additional cases/100,000 residents), Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale (523/100,000), Lafayette-Acadiana, Louisiana (403/100,000), and San Antonio, Texas (324/100,000). The total estimated increase in COVID-19 cases because of ICE activities was 245,581 between May 1, 2020, and August 1, 2020, nearly 6% of all U.S. cases for that period. During that time, the rate of detainee infection reported by ICE was 13 times the U.S. average. Proper procedures could doubtlessly have prevented many of those cases and saved thousands of American lives. 


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