Despite drastically reducing the population at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma and avoiding the kind of massive outbreaks afflicting Washington prisons, immigration officials on Thursday reported another detainee there tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, bringing the number up to 22.
In response, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) filed a request for a temporary restraining order asking that all vulnerable detainees be released, according to legal director Matt Adams.
The acknowledgment of the newest case came in an ongoing federal lawsuit brought by NWIRP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of older detainees and those with health conditions, including liver, heart and kidney disease.
This is the first time Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reported a case in the general population, as opposed to individuals newly transferred to the facility, according to Adams. A 23rd detainee who spent time at the detention center tested positive after being transferred to an Arizona facility, Adams said.
ICE also on Thursday reported that a contract pharmacy technician working at the detention center had tested positive — the eighth worker at the facility to do so, according to a chart compiled by NWIRP based on court filings.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, from the very beginning we have taken extensive measures to ensure the health and safety of those in our care and our employees, who are on the front lines making daily sacrifices at the center,” GEO Group, the private company that runs the detention center, said in a statement.
COVID-19 has spread rapidly through many congregate settings, such as prisons and nursing homes, because of the difficulty of physical distancing. Hundreds of cases have broken out at Washington’s prisons; at just one, Airway Heights Corrections Center, the Department of Corrections has reported 779 cases. The department on Thursday reported the fourth COVID-related death among prisoners, this one at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.
The Northwest detention center’s far fewer cases undoubtedly stem in large part from its vastly reduced population. With a capacity of 1,575 detainees, the facility’s current daily average is just 290, according to an ICE spokesperson.
Due to the pandemic, ICE has slowed arrests and released hundreds of detainees nationwide who are at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19. The agency has released 43 of 156 vulnerable detainees at the detention center identified by NWIRP, Adams said. Others have been deported. No detainees have died from the virus.
“But at the end of the day, there are still 80 vulnerable people that remain locked up,” Adams wrote in an email. “What is clear is that just like in detention centers and prisons around the country, the government cannot ensure the reasonable safety of these people.”
Angelina Godoy, director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington, said an upcoming report by the center will show detainees “are still reportedly held in close proximity, have to line up together at the medical clinic,” and “go out to the yard at the same time.”
“GEO didn’t make mask use mandatory for its employees inside the facility until Oct. 16. That’s inexcusably late,” she said. And testing has been inadequate, she said.
GEO laid out an array of safety measures it is taking, including providing masks to detainees at least three times a week and intensive cleaning. It also said the Tacoma facility has “double the number of health care staff, compared to correctional facilities.” ICE provides medical care at detention facilities.
ICE, in a statement, also noted detainees who have been exposed to the coronavirus are housed separately from the general population, and those with symptoms are placed in individual medical rooms, some of them airborne-infection-isolation rooms. The sickest are taken to the hospital.
The latest detainee to test positive was placed in an airborne-infection-isolation room, according to ICE’s court filing, though it said he was asymptomatic.
But Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer at La Resistencia, said in a news release that people detained in the same unit had called and described the normally young and vivacious individual as sleeping more than usual and having chills and a cold.
Villalpando also said two detainees with medical conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19 have been hunger-striking to demand the release of all detainees.
ICE acknowledged that one person is refusing food.