moderna vaccine stock file photo

Photo of Moderna coronavirus vaccine. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Omicron cases in Louisiana ICE detention centers are under control, the agency’s data showed. But migrant advocacy groups operating statewide claimed the low numbers presented by the agency are not credible in facilities where social distancing is not possible and the use of face masks is reportedly often not respected.

Only 17 immigrants detained in the 10 Louisiana ICE detention facilities, under the supervision of the New Orleans ICE Field Office, were positive as of Jan. 5. The ICE Integrated Decision Support numbers showed that an average of 3,768 immigrants were detained in Louisiana facilities as of Dec. 13,  which means that less than 1% of the total population is currently positive.

“Thousands of medical experts have repeatedly warned that social distancing is impossible for people in crowded detention conditions, a reality made even more dire by the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant,” said Layla Razavi, interim co-executive director at Freedom for Immigrants, a non-profit organization devoted to ending immigration detention. “The virus has changed, but the advice of doctors, epidemiologists, and public health officials has not,” she added.

According to the ICE database, eight people are isolated for COVID in Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, while six more are under isolation or monitored in both LaSalle ICE Processing Center, in Jena and the Alexandria Staging Facility. Five immigrants tested positive and are isolated at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center.

On Jan. 7, the COVID positivity rate in Louisiana hit 20% again, with 14,802 new COVID cases out of the 70,645 tests statewide.

Freedom for Immigrants said that people detained, including those in Louisiana's facilities, continued to call the organization's hotline “to report unsanitary and uninhabitable living conditions and denial of adequate PPE and COVID-19 safety measures.”

Advocates and lawyers also accused ICE of failing to provide adequate access to the vaccinations from qualified health professionals and information about vaccinations in languages that people detained speak.

In a letter sent Dec. 15 to ICE, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the agency claiming that it hasn’t a coordinated strategy to ensure that detained people can receive COVID-19 booster shots. “ICE’s inadequate provision of COVID-19 vaccines endangers the health and safety of detained people, in continued violation of their constitutional rights,” ACLU wrote.

An ICE spokesperson told The Advocate on Wednesday that the ICE COVID database is the only official source for information related to the detention facilities. “Confirmed case information is pulled from a live database from medical professionals and is updated daily as information becomes available,” the spokesperson said. “The agency continues to conduct COVID testing on all individuals during intake at all facilities, ensuring newcomers are isolated and monitored in accordance with CDC guidelines.”

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Data provided to The Advocate by ICE also showed that the average population inside the ICE detention facilities nationwide was 20,762 in December 2021. Only 938 people tested positive nationwide as of Friday.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, ICE has taken proactive measures to tailor conditions across its detention network to maintain safe and secure environments for detainees and staff, while adhering to guidelines for the prevention and control of infectious and communicable diseases from the CDC,” the ICE spokesperson added.

“This has included reducing the overall detained population, providing appropriate hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE), suspending social visitation, and maximizing social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times.”

The agency has consistently defended its strategy against COVID-19. In a previous report by The Advocate, a spokesperson said that ICE screens, tests, and houses separately from the general population for 14 days all new individuals who arrive at ICE facilities to detect and monitor COVID-19.

But advocates say ICE officers do not always follow those guidelines and claimed that they often use the practice of quarantine for secondary purposes. 

“ICE and local jails do not follow proper quarantining procedures with these transfers, and people continue to be subjected to the severe harms of solitary confinement as an ineffective, dehumanizing, and unlawful quarantining method,” said Jeff Migliozzi from Freedom for Immigrants. “ICE continues to conduct needless cross-country transfers across immigrant detention centers and prisons, further spreading the virus.

A September 2021 report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security observed that staff and detainees failed to wear masks and respect social distancing inside of Richwood Correctional Center, one of the facilities inspected in Louisiana, run by the private company, LaSalle Corrections.

“We observed a video of staff, particularly medical personnel, not wearing facemasks while interacting with detainees during sick calls,” the report stated. “Specifically, we requested video imaging of specific operations to ensure staff and detainees were wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. One of our requests included a 10-minute span of sick-call operations in which we observed unmasked medical personnel screening detainees, who were also unmasked.”

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