ICE Detainees in California Now Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccine

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Activists held a public memorial in San Francisco on May 12, 2020 to honor immigrants who died of COVID-19 while being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE detainees held in California facilities are now eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees held in state facilities in California will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday, according to state public health officials.

This comes months after federal authorities said the state is responsible for allocating vaccines to immigrant detainees within its borders, prompting local advocates to push California officials to clarify their plans.

Beginning Monday — March 15 — those who reside or work in congregate settings, where outbreak risk remains high, will be prioritized for the vaccine, including those who live in homeless shelters or are held in “incarceration/detention” facilities, according to an update released by state health officials last week.

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The California Department of Public Health confirmed to KQED that the vaccine eligibility expansion includes ICE detainees.

Advocates who campaigned since last winter for California officials to include detained immigrants in vaccination plans welcomed the change.

“We feel that this is a very long overdue inclusion of immigrants in detention in the state’s plan,” said Jackie Gonzalez, policy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates. “And what we would like to see is clear guidance for how local public health departments should roll out the vaccine.”

The coronavirus has swept through all seven detention centers in California, infecting more than 600 people held in the facilities since the pandemic began. More than a dozen detainees diagnosed with COVID-19 are currently in isolation or being monitored, according to ICE figures.

The nationwide average daily population in detention centers has dropped dramatically from nearly 40,000 a year ago, to about 14,000 last month. The decrease is due in part to Trump administration policies that essentially closed down the border to asylum seekers, as well as court orders forcing ICE to release detainees to allow for social distancing during the pandemic inside facilities.

ICE detention centers should work with local health jurisdictions to get allocations of doses and arrange vaccinations, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, during a call with reporters last week. “The exact approach is going to be provider specific.”

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A limited number of detainees nationwide have begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but that has depended largely on availability and the vaccination priorities of each state, ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said.

Vaccines at detention facilities are administered by either the ICE Health Services Corps, contracted medical staff or “through other processes as defined by the state and/or local vaccination implementation plan,” Moor said in a statement.

A spokesman for CoreCivic, the for-profit company that runs the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, said the facility was working to provide the vaccine to detainees “as quickly as possible.”

“We're following the plan and protocols established by the state of California and the San Diego Health Department health officials, for prioritizing recipients and administering the vaccine,” said Ryan Gustin, a spokesman with CoreCivic.

The GEO Group and Management & Training Corporation, the two other private companies that operate detention facilities in the state, declined to comment.

But immigrant advocates, including members of an advisory group tasked with helping California public health officials distribute the vaccine equitably, say local health departments or other trusted community medical providers should be the entities informing detainees and providing them with shots.

“We can't expect folks that are detained to be receptive to getting the vaccine from the detention facility staff or from people associated with ICE,” said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, who directs the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and also sits on CDPH’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee. “And that’s because of the really poor track record of medical care in these facilities.”