Report: 2 GEO Group staff contracted mumps at Aurora immigration detention center

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AURORA | Two staff members at the privately-owned immigration detention center in north Aurora contracted mumps earlier this year, according to a recent Tri-County Health Department report obtained by Sentinel Colorado.

One case of mumps was confirmed in a staff member on Jan. 3, according to Tri-County. Another was confirmed on March 5. In all, there were 15 cases of mumps at the center run by GEO Group Inc., which runs the detention center for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

Nine cases of chickenpox were reported between January and May. Tri-County says none of those cases occurred in people working at the detention facility. 

Many of the detainees that have been arriving at the Aurora facility this year have come from south of the Mexico border, ICE officials have repeatedly told members of the media. They say the detainees hail from countries with lower vaccination rates for communicable diseases like mumps and chickenpox. 

According to the Tri-County report, the facility, which is equipped to provide medical care for to up to 1,500 detainees, does not require 270 staff members to receive an MMR vaccination (measles, mumps and rubella). Following Tri-County’s recommendations, staff members were also offered a single dose of the MMR vaccine.

Of the facility staff, 217 either showed documentation of receiving an MMR vaccine from a private health care provider or received a vaccination from Tri-County’s clinic days for GEO Group staff.

According to the report, 20% of employees didn’t show documentation for receiving a vaccine. But Tri-County epidemiologist Bernadette Albanese told the Sentinel that doesn’t necessarily mean those staff members haven’t received an MMR vaccination, just that they haven’t provided proof of one.

“The mumps outbreak is over. Sporadic cases of mumps might still occur in the facility but the likelihood of spread (into another outbreak) is markedly reduced when vaccination rates are high,” Albanese said. “There isn’t necessarily an absolute number for how high rates must be in this setting. Based on the outbreak investigation and follow up, there was reasonable mumps control in the setting of this facility with MMR rates ranging between 65%-85%. Note those numbers represented an average for the entire facility. Some housing units had higher rates (90%-100%).”

According to the state health department, there were 33 mumps cases across Colorado last year, eight of those were in Adams County. There were 83 mumps cases in 2017 and 17 in 2016. So far in 2019, there have been 42 confirmed cases.

During the outbreak, four of the 33 housing units at the detention center were affected by one or more mumps cases, according to the report. When a case was detected in the housing units, often referred to as “pods” by facility staff, inmates were placed in quarantine for 25 days.

Pods that were quarantined for chicken pox cases were isolated for 21 days.

Between Feb. 25 and March 1, medical staff offered MMR vaccinations to 1,348 detainees. 1,140 received a dose, according to Tri-County. Now, when a detainee is processed into the facility they are offered an MMR vaccination within 72 hours of their arrival.

The report says chickenpox vaccinations weren’t found to be “logistically feasible to implement” at the detention center. But testing of four pods found that immunity to the disease hovered between 62% and 79%. 

“That percentage meant at least two-thirds of the detainee population was protected against chickenpox during the time when a case occurred in a housing unit,” Albanese said, highlighting that the percentage estimates risk of spread inside the housing unit. 

An ICE spokesperson did not immediately return requests for comment on why the vaccines were deemed not feasible.

GEO Group is required to report all infectious disease outbreak cases to Tri-County. Earlier this year a Sentinel investigation found the private prison company wasn’t doing that.

Tri-County staff said  there was little involvement from their department prior to February because GEO Group staff were unaware they had to report cases to the local health department.

“There were some initial reporting delays at the GEO facility. Now that disease reporting to public health is in place, state health department and Tri-County are working with the full cooperation of facility staff to improve reporting and communication among the entities,” state health department spokeswoman Shannon Barbare told the Sentinel in March.

Since then, local health department officials and detention center staff say those cases are all being reported. As of August 12, there was one pod quarantined due to a case of chickenpox, according to a report from Aurora Congressman Jason Crow’s office, which has been conducting weekly site “investigations.”

This week, Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz proposed an ordinance calling for all Aurora detention facilities to notify Aurora Fire Chief Fernando Gray of any infectious outbreaks within 48 hours of discovery.

That ordinance got unanimous approval from three council members during a city policy meeting this week and is set to go before the full body at a study session in the near future.