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32 Cases Of COVID-19 Confirmed At ICE Detention Center In Louisiana

Ben Depp
National Geographic Society
A COVID-19 test kit displayed in New Orleans East in May.

Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, with confirmed cases growing from two to 32 between Sunday and Monday.

It’s the highest current number of confirmed cases at any Louisiana facility as of Monday.

The new cases came after ICE tested the entire population of more than 300 detained people last week, ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox said in an email. “All of the detainees newly identified as positive cases are currently asymptomatic,” he said.

ICE has “taken extensive precautions to limit the potential spread of COVID-19,” he added, and he said the number of people held in ICE facilities across the U.S. has declined by more than 40 percent since March.

Immigration advocates have repeatedly criticized ICE’s handling of the pandemic and filed lawsuits to release people in vulnerable populations.

“We started receiving phone calls on Sunday night,” said Homero Lopez Jr., the executive director of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy, which represents clients in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities across Louisiana.

Clients told Lopez that staff had tested an entire dorm of 50 people at the facility an hour northwest of Lafayette on July 14, after a number of detainees complained of symptoms of COVID-19, including loss of taste or smell. The move was unusual, Lopez said, since staff have typically only tested those with outward symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing.

“The typical approach that we've seen from ICE is somebody shows symptoms, they remove that one person from the larger dorm, they test that person, and they send that person to solitary while they await their results,” Lopez said.

This time, no detainee was removed from the dorm, Lopez’s client told him. Staff “shut down” the dorm, he said, isolating those 50 in a cohort. When results came back on Sunday night, staff told the majority of detainees in the dorm that they had tested positive, Lopez said. He thinks the numbers could be higher.

“If they got tested on Tuesday, maybe the other ones were not affected on Tuesday. But if they remained another week basically in the same space with 30 people who are, then those other ones are likely now infected,” Lopez said.

Those who tested positive were moved to eight-person cells with other COVID-19-positive detainees, Lopez’s clients told him. But he added that some have since been moved between shared spaces for meetings with their lawyers or immigration hearings.

Three days after detainees were notified and one week after they were tested, ICE updated its online record of COVID-19 cases in its facilities.

Lopez said his clients didn’t know how the outbreak started, but people detained by ICE continue to be transferred between facilities, staff arrive and leave each day, and Lopez said that while masks are being provided to detainees and staff, there isn’t strict adherence to their use.

This post has been updated throughout to include information provided by ICE after publication.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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