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caption: A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
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A fence outside of the Northwest Detention Center, recently renamed the Northwest ICE Processing Center, is shown on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Tacoma.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Officials report low Covid-19 cases at Northwest Detention Center. But others say transparency is lacking

Hope is on the horizon this week with the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine. It's not, however, a silver bullet in this pandemic, and certain groups of people remain especially vulnerable. One such group is detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Esmy Jimenez covers immigration for KUOW. She's been reporting on the impact of Covid-19.

The Northwest Detention Center is very much still in lockdown mode. For us out here, we've gone through different phases. Inside the detention center, they can't really risk those kinds of changes. Family visitations have been closed since March. Detainees are mostly relying on video and phone calls.

The chaplain who provides religious visits there is gone. Attorneys can only do no-contact visits, which of course means they have to be in separate rooms. The population there has also dropped significantly. A year ago, it was roughly 1,200 people. Now it's down to 300.

Back in March, when the pandemic was first taking off, ICE stated that it would adjust its enforcement posture, which pretty much means it's only going after undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds. While there have still been deportations and transfers to other detention facilities, it's really a lot less than it was in the before-Covid times.

The other thing is that at this detention center, officials have been court-ordered to parole some people because they are medically vulnerable. And then ICE has also been letting some people out at the agency's own discretion.

The good news is there is currently only one person who's being actively monitored for the virus at the Northwest Detention Center. In total, there have been 22 people who had the virus since the start of all of this. That's according to ICE’s own public data.

Through court records, we also know that there have been five cases of Covid among staff of GEO Group, the private contractor who runs the facility. Then there have been cases including four more people among the medical staff there. ICE did stop publicly sharing their data on who has been tested and who came back positive. They stopped that back in June.

This detention center is doing relatively well. They haven't had Covid cases in the general population, which is really good, because it's not spreading. Most of the cases that are there are due to transfers from other facilities.

But, there's also a report from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights that just came out today. The report focuses on two things.

One, the researchers say that even though the numbers on the surface look regarding how many people have gotten sick, they don't actually really give us a good understanding of what's going on day-to-day at the Tacoma center. The researchers say there are detainees who say they see guards who are still not wearing masks. Others complain that they only get tested for Covid if a health official is willing to test them.

Then, researchers also point out that ICE historically hasn't been great with transparency, which then brings up more questions: How many people have been released to hospitals? How many got deported despite maybe having positive test results?

The report also then hits on local and state officials — really goes after them. It says they should be doing a lot more, specifically the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. Often, they're saying, "This isn't really our jurisdiction — ICE can consult with us, but they're not required to do so." The researchers in the report say they could definitely build tougher guidelines.

I just talked to Rene Alatorre. He was just released from the Tacoma center last week. He has asthma and high blood pressure, so he was definitely at risk of this. Rene says he was just in the medical area at the detention center. He saw three people who were in one room, marked with a sign that said Covid. He says, “Hey, ICE might say that there is no Covid there, but there definitely is.”

Over email, GEO said that from the very beginning, they've been taking extensive measures to ensure the health and safety of the detainees and staff: The detainees have access to medical care at any time; they get access to new facemasks at least three times a week. And they also have regular access to soap and water, to keep washing their hands. GEO also said that it has doubled its health care staff and that they have teams who were sterilizing high touch areas of the facility.

We know a couple of things looking ahead. ICE is planning on doing something called prevalence testing. That's going to be happening around Christmas Eve. I don't know a lot of the details, but that pretty much means they’re going to test everyone at the same time at the facility to make sure the virus isn't present and spreading.

The other thing is, because these folks are in a congregate setting, and they're high priority on the list, Washington will actually be making sure to get them vaccinated according to the Washington atate vaccine rollout plan. I'll be watching for that as well.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.