City panel OKs ordinance requiring Aurora GEO prison to report disease outbreaks to fire chief

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AURORA | Following a spate of chickenpox and mumps outbreaks at an Aurora detention center, a panel of Aurora city council members on Thursday gave a preliminary thumbs up to a new ordinance that would require detention center personnel to notify first responders within two days of contagion. 

City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz introduced the measure calling for all Aurora detention facilities to notify Aurora Fire Chief Fernando Gray of any infectious outbreaks within 48 hours of discovery.

“Certainly one facility’s failure to report put this on the radar, but I think it highlighted a missing piece … in our code,” she said at the city’s regular public safety committee meeting.

The measure comes on the heels of several reported cases of mumps and chickenpox at a federal immigration detention facility, privately owned and operated by GEO Group Inc., in Aurora earlier this year.

From the beginning of the year through mid-March, there were 15 cases of mumps and nine cases of chicken pox reported at the facility on Oakland Street. Chickenpox cases were reported at the facility last November, too.

However, The Sentinel reported there was miscommunication between ICE officials and the Tri-County Health Department regarding the reporting of diseased detainees.

Following the outbreaks at the facility, officials implemented a vaccination program in cooperation with recommendations from Tri-County Health and other agencies. The program was the first of its kind in the nation among ICE detention centers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Tri-County Health.

Protestors and activist groups have repeatedly condemned conditions at the facility in recent weeks.

Because GEO operates under a federal contract, officials there were reporting health issues primarily to federal health authorities, Aurora officials said Thursday. A new electronic reporting system will ensure that same information is now getting to Tri-County Health, too, according to Trevor Vaughn, manager of the city’s tax and licensing division. 

And the new ordinance will guarantee that any reports of contagious diseases sent to Tri-County Health will also make it to local first responders.

In an email, a spokesperson for ICE declined to specifically comment on the proposed ordinance. 

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement generally does not comment on proposed legislation,” Alethea Smock, a spokesperson for ICE, wrote. “As part of the department of Homeland Security’s homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the department’s mission and values, and uphold our laws while continuing to provide the nation with safety and security.”

Aurora firefighters responded to the north Aurora detention facility, which can house up to 1,500 detainees, 64 times between he beginning of 2016 through the end of last year, according to city data. Fire personnel responded to the address 10 times in the first two months of this year.

Aurora police were called to the building nearly 300 times in the previous three years, according to data obtained by The Sentinel.

Under the new ordinance, reports of communicable diseases at any city detention center will be added to the fire department’s call notes, which firefighters can review en route to an incident.

“It’s just a little bit more information,” Deputy Fire Chief Stephen McInerny told committee members. “ … Having that really helps us out.” 

In addition to notifying Gray or his proxy upon discovery of an infectious disease, detention center staffers will also need to keep Gray’s contact information on file and available to all employees, according to the measure’s proposed language. 

Gray publicly supported the ordinance Thursday, saying firefighters experienced “issues” upon responding to the detention center earlier this year.

“(Reporting) wasn’t happening,” he said. “We had some issues at GEO, and we weren’t notified. We didn’t know anything.”

If formally approved by a majority of the full city council, the ordinance will also apply to the city’s three other detention facilities: the Aurora municipal jail, Aurora Mental Health’s Crisis Stabilization Unit and Jefferson Hills treatment center.

The ordinance would not apply to halfway houses, according to Court Administrator Zelda DeBoyes.

“I think the definition here is that you’re imprisoned, and in a halfway house you’re not imprisoned,” she said. 

Because the measure is regulatory in nature, the city would work with any violators to rectify incidents of non-reporting before slapping any detention centers with a fine, according to Aurora city attorneys. 

The measure will now be forwarded to the full city council for discussion.