By Arshad Mohammed, Julia Symmes Cobb and Frank Jack Daniel
(Reuters) - About two dozen migrants deported from the United States on a flight to Colombia last month have since tested positive for the coronavirus, two people familiar with the matter said, adding to worries U.S. deportations could be spreading the disease.
Of the 64 migrants deported by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) on a March 30 flight, approximately 24 have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the people said.
ICE said at the time that it then used the same plane to repatriate Americans who had been stranded in Colombia as that country began a national lockdown.
An ICE spokeswoman said detainees on the flight were screened for elevated temperatures and symptoms associated with COVID-19. She did not say whether any had tested positive upon arrival in Colombia.
The agency said last week that it would begin testing some migrants before they were deported to other countries, a move that came as other governments demanded more screening before deportees were put on planes.
The deportation of migrants from the United States who test positive for the virus after arriving in their home countries has caused tensions with Latin American and Caribbean governments concerned about the spread of the disease.
In Guatemala, at least 103 migrants deported by the United States on a handful of flights in March and April have so far tested positive for coronavirus. That is around a fifth of all cases in the Central American country..
Other infections among deportees have been found in Haiti, Mexico and Jamaica.
Colombia has reported around 6,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and close to 300 deaths. Last week, the Colombian government extended its lockdown until May 11, while allowing construction and manufacturing businesses to reopen.
A spokesman for Colombia's migration agency confirmed arrival of the flight on March 30 with 64 people aboard, but directed inquiries about infections to health officials, who said such records are confidential.
The country's justice ministry said in a statement at the time of the flight that those aboard had been subjected to health checks by U.S. immigration officials, the Colombian Red Cross, and Bogota's health department at different points in the deportation process and that none had shown symptoms associated with COVID-19.
Everyone who arrived on the flight would have to complete 14 days of obligatory isolation required of all travelers entering Colombia, the ministry said, adding it would facilitate quarantine locations for the deportees.
The deportation flight came from an airfield holding center for migrants in Alexandria, Louisiana. Fourteen ICE employees at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 28, according to the agency.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City, Arshad Mohammed and Ted Hesson in Washington, and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Dave Graham, Rosalba O'Brien and Himani Sarkar)