Immigration officials have transferred a second person who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus to the Northwest detention center in Tacoma.
The man was transferred from the Oregon Department of Corrections, which had notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that he was nearing the end of 90-month sentence for kidnapping, burglary and robbery, according to an ICE court filing.
The Oregon department told ICE’s health service last Wednesday that the man had tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic. ICE took him into custody two days later and transferred him to the detention center, known officially as the Northwest ICE Processing Center.
He was taken to an isolation room in the detention center’s medical unit and will remain there for at least 14 days and until he tests negative for the virus twice. Only after those two tests, given 24 hours apart, will he be released to the general population, according to the ICE filing.
ICE said in an emailed statement that the man has not been in contact with any other detainees and that “comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients. including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.” The court filing said employees of the GEO group, which runs the private detention center, wore N95 masks, gowns and gloves as they transferred the man, who sat in the back of a vehicle with the windows open. And medical officials wore the same when interacting with him.
But Matt Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which along with the American Civil Liberties Union has filed two suits asking for vulnerable detainees to be released, said the cases heighten concerns of an outbreak.
“Here, they acknowledge that they continue to bring in persons from jails and prisons across the Northwest,” Adams said. “The only reason this person, who is asymptomatic, was even identified as having contracted the virus is because he was tested by the Department of Corrections in Oregon.”
In court filings, ICE and GEO have said the population of the 1,575-bed Tacoma facility is so low — 645 detainees were there as of May 12 — that those being held are able to keep 6 feet apart. And the officials have described a number of precautions, including keeping new arrivals in separate units for 14 days to see if they develop symptoms.
Adams said it’s unclear from the court filings whether all incoming detainees are held separately, and the fact that there are only three units for new arrivals suggests some comingling of those brought to the facility at different dates, contrary to ICE’s assertions.
Still, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, in an April 8 ruling denying the immediate release of plaintiffs in one case, wrote, “the court cannot conclude either that the spread of COVID-19 inside the NWDC is inevitable, or that Respondents [ICE and GEO officials] will be unable to contain it if it occurs.”
Since then, a detainee who tested positive at an Arizona facility was returned to the Northwest detention center, where he had previously been held. He was considered “recovered” and not infectious, according to ICE.
As the two lawsuits go forward, one seeking class-action status, coronavirus cases in detention centers around the country continue to mount. There were nearly 1,000 as of May 9.