A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered immediate testing of all detainees and staff at a Bakersfield immigration detention center where COVID-19 was spreading for weeks while officials refused to test for the virus.
After receiving results on Friday showing that nearly half of the detainees tested earlier in the week were positive for the illness caused by the coronavirus, federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ordered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to conduct quick-result testing of everyone who remained in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility.
“I’m ordering that it be done immediately, and nobody stop working until they’re completed,” the judge told lawyers for ICE and the private contractor that runs the facility, according to Deputy Public Defender Emi MacLean of the San Francisco public defender's office. The office represents detainees at the facility in San Francisco Immigration Court.
MacLean said the judge cited the “deliberate indifference” of ICE and GEO Group, the private company that manages the facility, saying, “There’s no question that this outbreak could have been avoided.”
Initial results from the quick tests on Saturday captured 11 more positive cases, MacLean said. Of the 104 detained people remaining at the facility, which once housed more than 350, at least 54 are positive for the virus.
Chhabria’s order also directed that the approximately 140 staff members at Mesa Verde be tested immediately, beginning with their next shift, and weekly thereafter. Documents filed in the case showed that ICE intentionally did not test staff for months to avoid impeding immigration enforcement, McLean said.
The order followed a series of hearings in a class-action lawsuit filed in April by the public defender's office, the ACLU foundations of Northern California and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Lakin & Wille and Cooley law firms.
Initially the lawsuit sought to ensure that the facility was taking adequate measures to ensure the detainees' safety. As the litigation proceeded, ICE insisted on testing only those who showed symptoms of possible infection and reported there were none, MacLean said.
But in mid-June, lawyers for ICE and GEO reported to the court that a staff member who obtained a test outside of work was positive for the virus, the first of 14 who would eventually report positive tests taken on their own, MacLean said.
On July 31 the first detainee tested positive.
"Then the real crisis started," MacLean said. "They didn't have a plan. They didn't act."
By then the facility had reduced its population to about 120 under pressure from the lawsuit. Several symptomatic detainees were put in one dorm and all the others in another, including those who had been exposed to others who were infected, creating ideal conditions for spread, MacLean said.
"The detention center is not safe for anyone who is there," she said. "The level of inaction and lack of concern for the individuals in their custody is stunning and outrageous."
In an email exchange obtained by the plaintiffs, Brooke Sanchez Othon, a clinical operations specialist at Wellpath, a private Nashville-based healthcare company that provides services to ICE detention facilities, pushed back against an ICE official's direction to initiate testing.
The proposal to test all detainees, Sanchez Othon wrote, already had been denied “due to the housing restrictions we face.”
“Testing all detainees will potentially cause the same housing issue we had last week but on a larger scale,” Sanchez Othon continued, referring to the problem of quarantining infected detainees. “Completing the testing is not the issue; it is just what we will need to do with the results once they are received.”
The facility began testing in the first week of August, but the results of those tests have not yet been returned, MacLean said.
Another round of tests conducted on Tuesday and reported to the court on Friday precipitated the order. Out of 70 tested, 32 were positive.
"We are really scared that we will never return to our families outside,” Hugo Lucas, who is currently detained at Mesa Verde, told his lawyers. “I have my daughter who is 14 years old, and I can't tell her what's going on because I'm too scared for her."
Attorneys said they would continue to push to improve safety conditions at the facility.
“If ICE and GEO can’t guarantee the basic safety of the people in their custody, through regular testing and adequate medical care, we need to consider whether they should be allowed to detain anyone at all,” said ACLU NorCal senior attorney Sean Riordan.
Times staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this story.