Doctors Arrested for Protesting Flu Shot Policy for Migrants

Marcia Frellick

December 12, 2019

Protesting physicians demanding to offer free flu vaccinations to migrants who are detained at the southwestern border ended their 3-day protest on Wednesday, a day after some of the activists were arrested, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune .

The protest was organized by Doctors for Camp Closure, a group founded by physicians opposed to the detention of migrants in the United States.

A founding member of the group, Bonnie Arzuaga, MD, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, told Medscape Medical News the group was told by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) that its chief medical officer, David Tarantino, is planning to discuss the matter with one of the group's leaders today.

"I'm not sure exactly what his proposal will be, if any," she said.

In the past year, three migrant children — ages 2, 6, and 16 — reportedly died from influenza while in federal custody in southwestern border facilities.

The Union-Tribune reported that four physicians and two others were arrested Tuesday when they lay across a driveway, blocking entrance to the border patrol headquarters.

The physician group updated its Facebook page late Tuesday, saying, "Everyone arrested today is safe. They were taken into custody, detained, cited, and then released. No one came to physical harm."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tweeted on Tuesday in defense of its decision, "Of course Border Patrol isn't going to let a random group of radical political activists show up and start injecting people with drugs."

The DHS did not respond to questions from Medscape Medical News.

However, the CBP said in a statement reported by multiple news outlets, "The men and women of the US Customs and Border Protection also share the concern about the welfare of those who come into our custody, and we stand by our process."

The agency said it has boosted its medical staff to more than 250 along the border and said migrants sent to longer-term facilities usually receive the vaccinations there.

The licensed physicians came to the Chula Vista border patrol station in San Ysidro, California, seeking to offer vaccinations to the migrants, but the CBP agents turned them away, saying the medical care was "not feasible," the Guardian reported.

In a press conference yesterday, emergency medicine physician Marie DeLuca, MD, from New York City, a founding member of Doctors for Camp Closure, spoke for the group.

She said, "We came down here with the hope of being able to implement a pilot program. We brought with us licensed medical providers to provide these flu shots as well as the vaccinations themselves and everything that would be needed to provide flu shots to people who gave their consent and were being held in Border Patrol custody.

"Unfortunately," DeLuca said, "despite several meetings with Border Patrol, we still haven't been granted access."

She said CBP agents keep insisting it "isn't feasible" to provide the vaccinations, but "since we have the vaccinations and everything we need to give the vaccinations, we know that it is feasible."

She said the early severity of this year's flu season has increased the urgency of the vaccines.

"Now is the time to prevent a public health emergency," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this year has recommended flu vaccinations "at the earliest point of entry" for migrants aged 6 months or older, according to news reports.

The directive from the CDC was stated in a November 7 letter from CDC Director Robert Redfield to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Washington Post reported.

The CDC recommendation was rejected by the CBP, according to news reports.

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