Federal scientists begin addressing massive covid-19 outbreak at immigration detention center in Virginia


RICHMOND, Va. – A team of federal scientists arrived Monday at an immigration detention center in Farmville, Va., to begin addressing the worst outbreak of the novel coronavirus at any such facility in the country, according to the office of Gov. Ralph Northam.

The 10-person team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work with the local health department to assess and manage the crisis, Northam’s office said Monday.

One detainee at the privately run facility who had covid-19 died last week. Nearly all of the 298 detainees are being monitored for infection, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Northam, a Democrat, and both of Virginia’s U.S. senators had appealed to President Donald Trump for federal help last month, saying state officials had little authority to intervene because the center is operated under a federal contract.

“After pushing for months, I’m relieved to see this necessary – and long overdue – action,” Northam said in an emailed statement. “I will continue to advocate for the health and safety of all in our Commonwealth, regardless of immigration status.”

On Monday, the CDC sent a team of clinicians, epidemiologists and laboratory scientists to assess the situation. They met at the Piedmont Health District office and planned to work with authorities from ICE, Northam’s office said. Officials at the CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Northam said the team will conduct a health assessment and is planning to test all employees. There are tentative plans to conduct “limited” testing in the community, as well as genome sequencing to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus, to judge the full extent of its spread.

According to an official description of the project, the CDC team will assess “risk factors for infection among workers and detainees, infection control and prevention practices in the facility, and transmission dynamics among workers, detainees, and the surrounding community.”

ICE officials confirmed the CDC’s involvement, saying the effort is part of the agency’s commitment to improving its response to the coronavirus. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeks to provide the highest quality of care to individuals in the agency’s custody, including at Immigration Centers of America,” the company that operates the Farmville facility, the agency said.

ICE previously said it has ramped up testing and other prevention efforts inside all its facilities. It also said it decides whether to transfer detainees on a case-by-case basis, weighing factors including the health conditions of the facilities involved.

Lawyers for detainees lauded the CDC’s plans to conduct testing inside the Farmville facility but said more needs to be done to prevent further spread of the disease among the detainees.

A lawsuit filed in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court last month alleged that detainees were made to sleep in crowded conditions, even after some of them tested positive for the coronavirus. It said those who were ill were primarily treated with Tylenol.

The lawsuit also claimed that ICE and Immigration Centers of America violated their own coronavirus prevention policy when they allowed 74 detainees to be transferred from other detention centers in June without first being tested. The company has referred all requests for comment to ICE.

On Tuesday, the federal judge in that case is scheduled to hear arguments on whether to order ICE to stop transfers in and out of the facility and whether to appoint a third-party public health expert who could determine if physical distancing requirements are being met, if there is enough personal protective equipment available and if the facility’s overall conditions are safe.

“The CDC staff will focus on one specific thing,” said Sirine Shebaya, a lawyer with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyer’s Guild, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in that case. “In our lawsuit, we’ve raised a whole list of conditions that go beyond the issue of testing,” she said. “It’s very unlikely that the CDC inspection will cover all of these different areas.”




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