Local health officials say GEO ICE prison COVID-19 outbreak has prompted review

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

AURORA | Tri-County Health Department staff say they are “re-assessing” COVID-19 vaccinations at the north Aurora immigration detention center after an outbreak hit the facility last week. 

So far, the agency has only administered vaccines to the prison once, despite a fluctuating number of detainees, officials there said.

Nearly 100 detainees currently housed at the privately-owned prison, which is operated by GEO Group Inc., have tested positive for the virus, even as vaccinations have become available to detention centers across the state. The outbreak was first published in a weekly accountability report by Aurora Congressman Jason Crow’s office and confirmed to the Sentinel by Tri-County earlier this week. A total of 96 detainees and one GEO employee have recently tested positive for the virus.

The sharp uptick in cases is due to “the number of non-citizens being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody from border facilities,” according to Denver ICE spokesperson Alethea Smock. 

The report from Crow’s office shows that 300 people were transferred into the facility the week prior to April 21. Fewer than 50 were transferred out of the facility, but it’s unknown how many detainees were released into the community. 

A week earlier, in the April 14 report, there were no new COVID-19 cases and 19 new people arrived at the detention center. 

The number of people moving into and out of the detention center can vary greatly from one week to the next, but only one full-day of vaccination administration has occurred, according to Dr. Bernadette Albanese, an immunologist at Tri-County. That’s despite Tri-County staff offering to return since April 8, when vaccinations were distributed to detainees and some staff who wanted them.

Smock said in her statement that, “ICE and the on-site medical professionals continue to work with the local health department to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to the community and vaccinate detainees who request a vaccination.”

Tri-County staff say they’ve only administered vaccines the one time.

“TCHD has offered to return to the facility when appropriate and mutually agreed to with GEO,” Albanese said. “That has not occurred yet and we are still in the process of evaluating the impact of the new COVID positives on risk of transmission at the facility.”

She characterized the initial partnership between Tri-County and the prison as “collaborative” earlier this month. 

“Per the governor’s prioritization groups, correctional facility staff could schedule (appointments) with TCHD clinics if they chose to get vaccinated with us, or seek vaccination from any other provider,” Albanese said. “TCHD offered one full day of detainee (and some staff) vaccination on April 8…We went through all housing units to offer vaccines to those who wanted a dose. TCHD staff administered the vaccine on that day.”

The facility holds both immigration detainees and U.S. Marshals Service detainees at the north Aurora location. None of the cases in this outbreak are among USMS detainees.

Transfers into ICE facilities have been a major concern for Crow, who, along with two other House members introduced the End Transfers and Detained Immigrants Act, which would prevent ICE from transferring detainees between facilities during the pandemic. No such legislation has been submitted under the Biden administration.

The bill, companion legislation to a Senate bill introduced by Democratic senators Michael Bennet and Jeff Merkley, also would have required that if physical distancing inside a facility is not possible, individuals must be released. 

“The confirmation of 97 positive COVID-19 cases at GEO is very concerning. We are in close contact with (the) Tri-County Health Department and monitoring the situation. Detention centers like this one are at an extremely high risk for virus spread and we’ll continue to push to ensure proper protocols are in place and followed by both ICE and GEO,” Crow said of the outbreak.

His office began conducting accountability check-ins in July 2019 after hearing about health and safety concerns in the detention center. The reports have continued throughout the pandemic, but are completed electronically instead of in-person.

When detainees are  transferred to the facility in north Aurora they’re given a COVID-19 test and “cohorted” for two weeks, according to ICE. After that time and showing no flu-like symptoms, detainees can be moved into the general population.

Albanese said there isn’t currently a program for offering vaccinations to incoming transfers, but the agency “will be reassessing the situation as additional testing is underway for persons in quarantine.”

Immigration rights proponents have for more than a year complained about how the detention center has handled COVID-19 transmission. Officials from the Colorado Immigration Rights Council were not immediately available for comment.

To date, there have been 314 cases among housed individuals, 187 positive cases among ICE detainees, two cases among ICE employees and 126 cases among GEO employees, according to the Crow report.

Note: A previous version of this article attributed statements to an ICE field director. The story has been corrected to attribute the statements to Alethea Smock.

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