ICE isolates 10 at Aurora immigrant detention center after ‘possible exposure’ to COVID-19

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The entrance to the GEO Group’s immigrant detention facility is shown in Aurora, Colo. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

AURORA | There are 10 detainees at Aurora’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center that have been “cohorted for monitoring out of an abundance of caution” following a possible exposure to COVID-19, ICE officials confirmed March 17.

There are currently no confirmed cases of the virus at the facility on Oakland Street, according to the agency. But the facility, which has been privately operated by The GEO Group Inc. since 1986, is “taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care,” spokeswoman Alethea Smock said in a statement.

Social visitation has been suspended in all ICE detention facilities and ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, according to Smock. Other measures like regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols and issuing guidance to health officials in the detention centers have also been issued. 

“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” Smock said. “In addition, 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.”

Social visitation has also been indefinitely halted at the Adams County jail, which incarcerates nearly 1,000 people at any given time, according to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. The Arapahoe County jail, which houses some 1,100 people, is continuing its video visitation protocols. The detention facility moved to all-video visits last year.

While ICE officials promised to continue arresting undocumented residents, the agency said agents will not use the pandemic to target foreign nationals seeking medical care.

“ICE does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances,” Smock wrote in a statement. “ICE policy directs our officers to avoid making arrests at sensitive locations – to include schools, places of worship, and health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities – without prior approval for an exemption, or in exigent circumstances.”

It’s not clear when the detainees in Aurora went into cohort, which means they are being separated from other detainees but aren’t exhibiting any symptoms of the virus. Reports of the measure have been circulating online since Saturday.

The Aurora City Council passed a local law last year that requires the detention center to report all instances of infectious disease to the Aurora fire department as a safety measure for first responders. A fire spokesperson said the department was notified by the facility that some detainees may have had contact with a COVID-19 positive person and were being separated from the rest of the population.

The ordinance only dictates that confirmed cases be reported, but Allison Hiltz, who drafted the ordinance, said she believes a report of even “cohorting” detainees is important now.

“This disease did not exist when we passed this ordinance, but obviously the intent was to ensure communicable diseases were shared with the fire department in order to prioritize public health and safety,” she told the Sentinel. “Any reasonable person would assume COVID-19 would fall under that category, particularly with it being a global pandemic with state, federal and local guidelines…and if they don’t report they’re clearly seeking a loop hole, in my opinion.”

The detention center is also supposed to report all communicable diseases to the Tri-County Health Department. Last year, a Sentinel investigation found that multiple confirmed cases of infectious disease were not being reported by the facility. Since that report health officials and facility operators said they’ve been working closely together.

Congressman Jason Crow first started asking about plans to handle potential COVID-19 cases at the facility in late February, before the virus became a global pandemic. According to a report from a weekly visit on February 24, staff said directions would come from ICE Health Service Corps. Staff at the facility also agreed to notify in the case a detainee tests positive for the virus.

A spokesperson for Crow said on Tuesday the lawmaker is drafting a letter to ICE officials seeking more information on precautions the agency is taking to protect detainees.

— Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report