With more migrants being detained at the borders, centers run by ICE are seeing a rise in infections. Few detainees are vaccinated.,

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Virus cases are surging at crowded immigration detention centers in the U.S.

Children who had tested positive for the coronavirus, held at a migrant detention center in Donna, Texas, in March.Credit…Dario Lopez-Mills/Reuters

By Maura Turcotte

July 6, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

As their populations swell nearly to prepandemic levels, U.S. immigration detention centers are reporting major surges in coronavirus infections among detainees.

Public health officials, noting that few detainees are vaccinated against the virus, warn that the increasingly crowded facilities can be fertile ground for outbreaks.

The number of migrants being held in the detention centers has nearly doubled in recent months as border apprehensions have risen, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. More than 26,000 people were in detention last week, compared with about 14,000 in April.

More than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in the centers over that same period, accounting for more than 40 percent of all cases reported in ICE facilities since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times analysis of ICE data.

Prisons and jails in America were hotbeds for the virus last year, with nearly one in three inmates at federal and state facilities testing positive. The virus infected and killed prisoners at a faster rate than it did in nearby populations because of crowding and other factors that made ideal conditions for Covid to spread.

As of May, according to ICE’s latest available data, only about 20 percent of detainees passing through the centers had received at least one dose of vaccine while in custody.

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who has inspected immigration detention centers during the pandemic, said that several factors were to blame for the surge, including transfers of detainees between facilities, insufficient testing and lax Covid-19 safety measures.

For example, he said, during a recent inspection at a center in Aurora, Colo., he saw many staff members who were not wearing face coverings properly, adding: “There is minimal to no accountability regarding their protocols.”

Paige Hughes, an ICE spokeswoman, said that all new detainees were tested for the coronavirus and are held in quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

“On-site medical professionals are credited with reducing the risk of further spreading the disease by immediately testing, identifying and isolating the exposed detainees to mitigate the spread of infection,” she said.

Even so, public health officials point out that detainees are transported to the facilities by bus before they are tested and may be exposed during the trip. Similar lapses by prison systems over the past year have led to mass infections and deaths.

ICE officials said the agency’s policy was to leave decisions about vaccinating detainees to state and local officials. Some of the worst outbreaks at ICE facilities, including one at the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., have been in states where vaccination rates are far below the national average, according to a Times database.

As concerns grow over the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that detainees would remain vulnerable to outbreaks until officials made vaccinations at these sites a higher priority.

“You have people coming in and out of the facility, into communities where incomplete vaccination allows these variants to flourish, and then you bring them inside the facilities, and that variant will spread,” Dr. Dolovich said. “What you’re describing is the combination of insufficient vaccination plus the evolution of the virus, and that is really scary.”