Immigrants detained at an ICE facility in Farmville where there was an outbreak of COVID-19 this summer are still at risk of having the virus introduced and spread throughout the facility. That’s according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control.
The report is based on a CDC inspection of the privately-owned detention facility in August. It was made public this week as part of an ongoing lawsuit. According to the report’s conclusions, “continued and enhanced surveillance,” is necessary to prevent another outbreak as well as “providing additional spacing in dormitories and bunk bed assignments.”
The report also reveals that throughout the outbreak “non-urgent care” — including mental health, dental visits, and chronic care — was canceled “to permit medical staff to focus on COVID-19.”
The Farmville facility is owned and operated by the private company Immigration Centers of America. The company contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, ICE, and the town of Farmville.
“The CDC report makes crystal clear that they committed errors and it was those errors that… resulted in facility-wide spread,” says Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Close Living Quarters
At the request of the Virginia Department of Health, the CDC sent a team of experts to the facility in August. The CDC team tested staff and the immigrants for COVID-19, in addition to investigating the facility’s infection control procedures.
According to the report, there were 298 immigrants held at the facility when the CDC team arrived on August 10, well below the facility’s capacity of 700.
Despite that, dozens of detainees told the CDC team that social distancing at the facility wasn’t possible because beds are placed close together and “everyone is too close to each other in the dormitory.”
The CDC’s report concluded that the outbreak at Farmville was “difficult to manage and mitigate due to the housing design and limited number of rooms” to isolate detainees waiting for test results.
According to information ICA shared with the CDC, two men held at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 on April 27th, after having been transferred from another facility. They were both isolated for more than a month.
Then in early June the facility received 74 additional men transferred from facilities in Arizona and Florida, bringing the total number of detainees up to 473. Reporting from the Washington Post would later reveal the primary reason for those transfers had nothing to do with the detained individuals, but was part of a “wider deployment” of federal forces to quell Black Lives Matter protests.
The transfers were screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Two had a fever and were sent to the local emergency room. One tested positive for COVID-19 and was held in isolation on the medical unit.
The remaining 72 transfers did not report symptoms or have fevers. They were quarantined together in an open-dorm room, separate from the other detainees who were in other dorms. Soon though a handful developed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. Within days there was an outbreak, 69-percent of the men transferred from Florida and Arizona tested positive.
By the last week in June, staff began to screen and test for COVID-19 among the rest of the population -- the hundreds of men who were there before the transfers arrived.
As results trickled in, it became clear the virus had spread to the general population. By the end of July, 83-percent of the 324 general population detainees also tested positive. Many were asymptomatic, but eight were hospitalized because of COVID-19, and one man, a Canadian national, died.
But there was an error in several tests, almost 20-percent of them “could not be processed due to sample collection errors…or errors at the commercial laboratory.” One of those tests wound up being from the man who would later die. According to the CDC’s inspection, test results lagged by days and even weeks. Detainees who were waiting on a result continued to live in open dorms with other detainees.
“This presented a major challenge,” wrote the report’s author.
According to ICE there are currently no cases of COVID-19 at ICA Farmville.
The CDC recommended several steps be taken to prevent further outbreak, including:
All new intakes be tested and a two-week quarantine “can also be considered”
Bunk beds be spread out by at least six feet
Flu shots be given to every detainee
Staff are trained on proper use of PPE
A spokeswoman for ICE says "ICE and ICA Farmville are carefully reviewing the recommendations in the CDC's report." She did not give details on whether those recommendations would be implemented.
Updated 9/17/20 with a response from an ICE spokeswoman.