19 new COVID-19 cases reported at Aurora GEO immigration detention center

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AURORA | Staff at the privately-run U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention center in north Aurora confirmed 19 new COVID-19 cases this week, all among detainees. To contain the virus, GEO Group Inc. detention center employees quarantined about 30 people as of Sept. 30, according to a report from Aurora Congressman Jason Crow’s office. 

The outbreak disclosure brings the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among Aurora GEO detainees to 73 since March 30. To date, two ICE employees and 17 GEO employees had tested positive for the virus, but none were found to have recently contracted COVID-19 as of Sept. 30. 

“This facility has a history of not prioritizing the health and safety of its detainees, so I am not surprised that there is an outbreak,” said Aurora Councilmember Allison Hiltz, who has been calling for more transparency of the facility since taking office in 2017. 

Crow’s report found that the COVID-19 cases were not among new arrivals, “but due to virus spread within one dorm in the facility.”

“GEO reported the spread was isolated to that area,” the report says.

It’s unclear how COVID-19 began infecting people detained in the GEO facility, which is located near the intersection of Peoria Street and East 30th Avenue. ICE spokespersons have repeatedly said GEO staff implemented protective measures and offered voluntary testing for detainees.

Earlier this year, GEO also released some detainees especially at-risk of succumbing to COVID-19.

Pablo Paez, executive vice president of corporate relations for the private prisons firm GEO Group, did not immediately respond to a request for information about the cause of the outbreak and the status of the detainees. 

ICE regional spokesperson Alethea Smock referred the Sentinel to a general statement posted on the agency’s website. “….ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus,” the agency said. 

A spokesperson for Crow, Anne Feldman, noted that previous outbreaks were caused by transferring detainees between facilities, but it doesn’t seem so far that was the case with this recent outbreak. 

Crow plans to speak with regional ICE director John Fabbricatore on Monday to glean more details about the source of the outbreak, Feldman said. 

Aurora city council members were also informed of the outbreak through Aurora Fire Rescue. Lawmakers passed an accountability law in 2019 after a Sentinel investigation found the detention center wasn’t disclosing mumps or chicken pox outbreaks to local health officials. 

“This is an ongoing fear based on their previous outbreaks and while I’m glad that they are reporting under the ordinance that was passed, it’s clear that we still need additional oversight,” Hiltz said of the facility. 

More than 300 people are currently detained at the detention center. Undocumented immigrants there await deportation orders, release and court proceedings. 

Crow’s last in-person accountability check-in with the GEO detention center was on Sept. 9. Then, 12 people were being quarantined because of “sickness.” That week, GEO staff counted seven new COVID-19 cases, which were all among detainees. 

Outbreaks have been confirmed inside the Aurora detention facility since the arrival of COVID-19 in March. In June, voluntary testing among detainees revealed four new cases. 

In May, Crow called on ICE to stop transferring new detainees into the facility to keep the virus from spreading inside its walls. In a letter, ICE declined and said transfers were safe. ICE staff weren’t transferring any patients confirmed to have COVID-19, they said. 

Activists camped in front of the GEO facility this summer to draw attention to the threat of COVID-19. Groups including Abolish ICE Denver are calling for the immediate release of all people detained in the facility.