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Immigration and Customs Control detainees housed in the privately owned Aurora Detention Center will soon receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The Tri-County Health Department will begin vaccinating people at the GEO ICE facility on April 8,” said Becky O’Guin, spokeswoman for the Tri-County Health Department. “This goes hand in hand with vaccinating other eligible groups and has important public health implications as disease transmission in congregational settings can be difficult to control, as demonstrated by previous outbreaks at this facility.”
A total of 185 ICE prisoners have had a positive COVID test in the Aurora Contract Detention Facility since the pandemic began. No one has tested positive and there have been no deaths in the past few weeks, according to the ICE website.
“We welcome ICE for access to a vaccine that brings at least some relief when people are deprived of their freedoms so they don’t have to fear that their lives will be stolen,” says Laura Lunn, a lawyer for the ICE prisoners in Colorado through the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.
The Aurora facility, operated by the private prison company GEO Group under a contract with ICE, was the scene of a widespread outbreak among ICE prisoners in the fall of 2020. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the facility also dealt with outbreaks of other infectious diseases, including mumps and chickenpox.
The number of detainees in the Aurora Contract Detention Facility with a maximum capacity of over 1,500 is way down. In early March 2020, when the COVID pandemic hit Colorado, the facility housed 607 ICE prisoners. In mid-March of this year, the facility had 218 ICE prisoners.
The ICE detainees in Aurora are a mix of undocumented immigrants with no criminal charge or conviction, undocumented immigrants with criminal charges or conviction, lawful residents with criminal convictions, and asylum seekers.
The federal government also houses a few dozen U.S. Marshal detainees at the Aurora facility. 34 of the U.S. Marshal detainees tested positive for COVID over the course of the pandemic, according to a report from the Office of Congressman Jason Crow.
Two ICE employees and 123 GEO Group employees in Aurora have also tested positive for COVID, although there have been no cases recently.
For much of 2020, lawyers, doctors, and immigration lawyers expressed concern about the COVID threat at the facility as inmates cannot socially distance themselves from sharing the room with multiple cellmates. During a news conference in October 2020, Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease doctor associated with the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, said that the ICE leadership should clear as many inmates as possible, especially those who are due to the Medically vulnerable hazards were to catch the virus. “There is no other way to protect them,” said Franco-Paredes.
John Fabbricatore, director of the Denver Field Office of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, told Crow’s office that local ICE officials are reducing the number of detainees at the Aurora facility through a combination of humanitarian probation and release using alternatives to detention methods could.
“It was a life-saving mechanism,” says Lunn, that ICE is shrinking the population at the Aurora facility. “If the population had been what it was before COVID-19, the results would certainly have been very, very different. But I also want to make sure we use this as traction to continue. Nothing material has changed in our communities. ” besides making sure we kept people safe. “
ICE officials say they have kept in touch with health officials across the country to ensure detainees are included in state immunization schedules. Although Colorado Department of Health officials initially included incarcerated individuals in the early stages of vaccine implementation, Governor Jared Polis suspended those plans and moved most of the inmates and prisoners to the stage when the general public would be vaccinated. This phase began on April 2nd.
“It’s disheartening to see that they weren’t prioritized just to know the risk factors that were at stake,” says Lunn.
The GEO Group does not require its employees to be vaccinated. “Employees were offered a vaccine back in the healthcare phase, but we’re offering it again,” says O’Guin.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh works for Westword where he covers a range of topics including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves talking about New York sports.