COVID-19 Cases in ICE Detention Facilities Outpace Rates in General Population

By Carolyn Crist

February 01, 2021

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The increase in COVID-19 cases in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities is outpacing the surging numbers in the overall U.S. population, according to a new study.

Federal officials should take "expeditious action" to protect people who are housed in ICE detention facilities by reducing the number of people who are detained and ending raids, transfers and deportation flights that spread the virus, researchers write in JAMA Network Open.

"We know that congregate living facilities have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic - this includes skilled nursing facilities as well as prisons and jails - places where medically vulnerable people are housed in tight living quarters," said senior author Dr. Kathryn Nowotny of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

"ICE detention centers are a type of congregate living facility that has a history of human rights abuses, including substandard access to healthcare," she told Reuters Health by email. "It is especially important to monitor the spread of COVID-19 as well as the government's response to it for this population."

Dr. Nowotny and colleagues analyzed data from the COVID Prison Project between May and September to better understand the epidemiology of COVID-19 in these detention facilities.

They compared the numbers with the rates of COVID-19 cases among the general population, as well as the test percentage and test positivity rates. They also looked at case numbers in communities surrounding each detention facility.

The research team found that 167 facilities housed people detained by ICE. Most of these facilities, such as county jails, primarily house non-ICE detainees; 28 designated ICE facilities exclusively housed people who were detained by ICE, including four family residential centers.

Overall, ICE reported at least one COVID-19 case in 96 facilities, and by mid-September, more than 5,800 cases had been reported among 27,000 people.

The overall cumulative case rate was 214 per 1,000 people. At that time, the highest case numbers were reported at facilities in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. Six people had died from COVID-19.

According to the latest ICE data updated on January 20, 582 COVID-19 cases are currently under isolation or monitoring. In total, 8,975 people have tested positive during the pandemic, and eight have died.

The research team found that, as the testing rates reported by ICE increased, the case rates increased and the test-positivity rates fell. At the same time, the increase in case rates outpaced the growth in the overall population, as well as the surrounding communities.

At the Immigration Centers of America in Farmville, Virginia, for instance, the cumulative case rate was 28 times higher than the case numbers in Prince Edward County.

"Unfortunately, we were not surprised that the cumulative case rate among people detained by ICE was higher than the general U.S. population - about two times higher," Dr. Nowotny said. "I do think it is shocking to see the magnitude of the difference in some counties."

A limitation of the study is that the analysis relied on ICE data, the authors write, so cases may be higher than reported. In addition, the average stay is 38 days, so it's difficult to track mortality and testing rates given the high turnover.

The research team is still tracking COVID-19 tests, cases and deaths among detainees and staff and has begun tracking vaccine allocation policies and distribution for all incarcerated people and staff in correctional settings.

"Like everything related to this pandemic, more needs to be done faster," said Dr. Joseph Amon of Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Amon, who wasn't involved with this study, has written about COVID-19 in detention facilities.

"Releasing detainees is a critical part of the COVID-19 response and is both good public health and human rights policy," he said.

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online January 19, 2021.