Employee at Berks County immigration detention center tests positive for COVID-19

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

An employee at Berks County Residential Center received a positive test result for COVID-19 on Oct. 16, a week after last working in the building, according to a letter sent to families detained there.

Advocates with the Shut Down Berks Coalition say families received the letter on Oct. 21. The letter also said the employee was a member of the medical staff and that the center was responding by cleaning the building and contact tracing.

The facility is one of three in the nation where Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds children with their families while their cases proceed in civil court. Jacquelyn Kline, a lawyer with the nonprofit Aldea, which represents detained families, said her clients are frustrated and scared.

“This has been their fear all along, that COVID was going to come to the facility,” she said. “And that being in a detained setting, they have no control over anything, really. They can’t self-isolate. They can’t protect themselves in the ways that we, someone who’s not detained, can take precautions.”

The situation is even more challenging for parents who have toddlers, she said, because it is more difficult to ensure they wore a mask and harder to keep them in one room. Five of the seven children Aldea represents are three years old or younger.

Kline and other advocates are calling for testing of everyone detained or working in the facility, something that Bridget Cambria, another attorney representing the families, said the center has not done since June. According to the coronavirus page on ICE’s website, the agency tests and quarantines new arrivals to a detention facility and “complies with CDC guidance.” Under CDC guidelines for testing, contact tracing and subsequent testing apply to people who came in close contact with someone who tested positive starting two days before the infected person noticed symptoms.

Kline said people also receive tests when they are facing deportation or when they leave the facility for other medical treatment, but no one has been tested as a result of the confirmed case.

Since before the pandemic, advocates and people formerly detained at Berks complained of sickness and poor medical attention. In statements used as exhibits in a lawsuit that went before the Pa. Supreme Court, detained parents said their children were ill. Kline said clients are frequently sick when they arrive at the center and during detention.

She said the news that the confirmed case came from the medical department is especially concerning.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that residents did not come into contact with this person if they work in medical,” she said. “Our clients are constantly in medical. Even if you just need an aspirin, that is something that needs to be given to you by medical.”

This is the Berks County facility’s first confirmed case, though the two other family detention centers, both located in Texas, have already had cases.

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have been spiking in Pennsylvania, with Berks County in the top 10 counties where cases are rising the fastest.

ICE said in a statement that it could not comment on the health of a former contract employee and deferred to a company called STG International, which provides health care services for prisons and other facilities. STG International has not responded to a request for comment.

In March, advocates representing families in all three detention centers filed a lawsuit against the federal government, calling for their immediate release due to the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in confined group settings. In July, Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declined to order the release of all families, describing ICE’s steps to prevent coronavirus cases as a “moderate, though undeniably fragile, success.” He did, however, leave the door open for people to file their own requests for release due to concerns with the pandemic.

Lawyers have also used a 1997 agreement on family detention to advocate for families’ release during the pandemic. Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California ruled in June that ICE should release families, writing that family detention centers are “on fire” due to the threat of COVID-19. The order has not been enforced.

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