Sharing the facts about Covid Vax inside ICE detention, one detainee at a time

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The sounds of screaming ambulances, car horns and bustling traffic filtered through Dr. Daniel Turner-Lloveras’ home office in downtown Los Angeles as he settled into a brown leather couch to take a call.

On the other end of the line, staring at a mint green wall inside a plexiglass phone booth with little privacy, sat Pedro Figueroa, 33, a detainee at the U.S. Immigration Detention Center and Mesa Verde Customs in Bakersfield, California.

“Is it mandatory to get the callback?” Figueroa asked in Spanish. “And why do I need it?

Turner-Lloveras, who specializes in internal medicine, answers questions like these once a week as a volunteer doctor for the Covid-19 Vaccine Education & Empowerment in Detention program, or VEED, a collaboration between the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and the Latino Coalition Against COVID-19, an organization he co-founded. They launched the program last April to provide vaccine education to immigrants who have been arrested for being in the United States without proper papers and are awaiting a hearing or deportation.

Licensed medical providers volunteer to speak by phone with immigrants housed in ICE facilities. Conversations last from five minutes to half an hour, and volunteers work a two-hour shift once a week.

“On average, I will talk to four people. The majority of calls are in Spanish, around 80%,” said Turner-Lloveras, who is fluent in Spanish. “But it varies. One day there was no Spanish, and it was English and Mandarin. I used my phone’s real-time audio translation, and it worked pretty well.

April Newman, VEED program manager, said providers are not pressuring anyone to get vaccinated. “It’s really everyone’s choice,” she said. “But we want to make sure they are equipped and equipped with reliable and accessible information.”

ICE has seven detention centers in California, six of which are operated by private prison corporations. In the two years since the pandemic took hold, covid outbreaks have plagued inmates in recurring waves, sweeping nearly every facility in the state. As of March 14, ICE had recorded more than 2,000 cases of covid infection and one covid-related death at its California facilities, according to agency data. Nationally, ICE has recorded more than 40,000 cases among inmates and 11 deaths.

California facilities have been the target of lawsuits alleging lax efforts to prevent and contain covid outbreaks. The Mesa Verde facility, where Figueroa is being held, has been the subject of a class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups alleging overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and breaches of safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. . Government documents uncovered in the case revealed that at one point, Mesa Verde officials intentionally limited covid testing to avoid having to isolate inmates who tested positive.

As part of a settlement reached in January, immigration officials agreed to abide by numerous covid-related protections for the next three years, including strict limits on the detained population to allow for adequate distancing and testing. regular. Additionally, hundreds of immigrants who were released because their health made them particularly vulnerable to covid can only be returned to detention if they pose a risk to public safety.

The settlement includes new protocols for vaccine awareness, including requiring ICE and GEO Group, the private prison contractor that operates Mesa Verde, to offer covid vaccines to inmates during the 14-month quarantine period. days after being taken into custody and to provide consistent booster doses. with guidance from the CDC. If an inmate initially refuses vaccination, but then changes his mind, the facility must administer a vaccine at that person’s request.

“There should be no lawsuits to ensure that ICE provides public health-informed vaccine education and promptly administers vaccines and boosters to those in custody. These are absolutely essential steps to protect those in custody from the ongoing threat of covid-19,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior counsel for the San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Committee, one of the groups that sued.

As of February 21, nearly 34,000 inmates in US detention centers have refused vaccination, according to figures provided by ICE. During the same period, more than 53,000 received one.

Turner-Lloveras said the big hurdle is the lack of trusted messengers. “When someone doesn’t trust the people offering the vaccine,” he said, “a lot of people are going to refuse it.”

Per ICE covid protocols, vaccine information is provided on admission in many languages. Still, Newman, VEED’s program manager, said inmates at some facilities reported a markedly inconsistent approach to providing vaccines, boosters and education.

“Programs like VEED are essential,” said Jackie Gonzalez, policy director of Immigrant Defense Advocates, a group that works to abolish detention centers in California. “Because we know detainees don’t trust the people detaining them, especially when the detaining party is a private company that has repeatedly let them down over health and safety issues.”

Figueroa, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, has been at the Mesa Verde facility since November awaiting a court date in his deportation case. He said he was brought to the United States without papers as a child and picked up by ICE following a recent arrest. He declined to discuss the nature of the arrest, saying he had been advised that discussing his case could harm his legal efforts to stay in the United States.

In custody, Figueroa said, he initially refused a vaccine because he felt he did not have enough information about safety and side effects. He had heard that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was linked to a rare but life-threatening side effect involving severe blood clots.

“I told the nurse that I had heard bad reports about Johnson & Johnson. If I wanted to get vaccinated with one of the others, could I have more information? Figueroa called back.” response was: ‘We offer J&J. Do you want it or not?’ So I didn’t understand. »

Eventually, Figueroa received the Pfizer vaccine. But he had questions about booster shots and other covid issues. Turner-Lloveras, he says, did not treat him like an inmate.

“I feel like I was treated like another person who asked for information,” Figueroa said. “I feel more comfortable receiving medical information from someone outside, so I can make those decisions.”

The pilot program started with 20 on-call physicians across the country. They recruit volunteers on an ongoing basis and currently have several active doctors. For now, they provide services at four detention centers in California where inmates have specifically sought outside medical advice and hope to expand nationwide.

The call between Turner-Lloveras and Figueroa lasted around 18 minutes. Figueroa asked about the risks of people mixing different brands of vaccines from initial doses to boosters, as well as the possibility of false negative test results.

After the conversation, Figueroa decided to get the recall when he becomes eligible in three months. “The hope is that I won’t be here, but if I am I will get it to protect myself and others,” he said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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