Hundreds of detainees and staff at a federal immigration detention center in California are being tested for COVID-19 amid an outbreak of the highly contagious virus.
Saturation testing of detainees at the 1,940-bed Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County was expected to be completed by Sunday, according to Gabriel Valdez, assistant field office director of enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility, owned and operated by private prison company The GEO Group, is one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country.
As of Sunday, 53 of 394 people had tested positive for COVID-19, Valdez said in court filings. ICE previously designated 20 of those 53 people as being at greater risk of complications from COVID-19 due to their age and preexisting medical conditions.
Nine of the 53 people who tested positive have been hospitalized since Sept. 10, Valdez said. Three have since been released from the hospital and are in medical isolation rooms, he said.
Additionally, 34 people tested negative and 307 were awaiting results, Valdez said. Each test kit is sent to an off-site laboratory, he said, and officials are receiving results in three to five days.
"As testing results come in and the facility learns the full extent of the outbreak, mitigation plans are still taking shape, and will be modified as the extent and the location of the outbreak is defined," Valdez said.
ICE, on its website Tuesday, increased the total number of active cases among Adelanto detainees to 58.
At least two people detained at the facility described the situation as "out of control."
"Everyone is testing positive," Jose Tapete, a detainee from Mexico who got a positive result on Friday, told The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, part of the USA TODAY Network.
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"I'm afraid of dying here," Jose Ricardo Viveros Rodriguez, 72, said in Spanish. He said Saturday that he was on a hunger strike to raise awareness of the risk he faces at the facility. He has diabetes and high blood pressure, which increase his risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.
ICE spokesperson Alexx Pons said Monday that no detainees are on strike at the facility.
One of the dormitories, known as West 5, has been converted to a "quarantine status," Valdez said. People in the dorm must remain in their rooms, which house no more than two people. They cannot visit the dining hall, so facility staff bring meals to them. They are allowed to use showers and telephones one room at a time.
People in the West dorm who are waiting for test results are treated as "presumptively positive" for the virus, Valdez said. They await results in rooms that typically house two detainees, he said.
Jessica Bansal, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California who is representing Adelanto detainees in a class action lawsuit, criticized ICE's practice of holding two people awaiting results in a single cell for multiple days.
If one has the virus, she said, it's possible he will pass it on to the other during that period of time.
"Literally, the results are meaningless," she said.
Referring to the outbreak, Bansal said, "It's just heartbreaking, because it was totally preventable."
Saturation testing of GEO and contract medical staff was expected to be completed by Tuesday, Valdez said.
As of Sunday morning, 238 of approximately 600 staff members had been tested for COVID-19, he said. Of those, eight had tested positive, he said. Those employees have been instructed to quarantine at home, and will not be allowed to return to the facility for at least 14 days, he said. They will need to test negative for the virus before returning.
Experts agree that the outbreak "was most likely caused by a staff member who reported to work at Adelanto infected with Covid-19," U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter Jr. wrote in an order issued Tuesday morning. It originated in the West 5D dorm, with detainees initially being infected between Sept. 5 and Sept. 10, Valdez said.
Rebecca Plevin reports on immigration for The Desert Sun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccaplevin.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: COVID-19 overwhelms Adelanto ICE center in California: 'Heartbreaking'