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2,200 quarantined over mumps outbreak at immigration centers

PHOENIX (AP) — Over 2,200 people exposed to the mumps virus in at least two immigration detention facilities have been quarantined, authorities said Tuesday. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the 25-day quarantine began March 7 at facilities in Pine Prairie, Louisiana, and Aurora, Colorado.

The outbreak has renewed long-held concerns over access to medical care at immigration facilities, especially at a time when more immigrants who are crossing the border are being held and for longer periods of time. There are nearly 47,000 immigrants currently detained around the country, according to an ICE spokesman.

ICE says 236 detainees have had confirmed or probable cases of mumps in 51 facilities in the past year. There were no reported cases between 2016 and 2018 at any ICE facilities. Mumps is extremely rare, and infections have dropped by 99 percent since vaccinations began in the late 1960s. It can spread quickly through coughing, sneezing or even talking, and symptoms include swollen glands, fever, headache, muscle aches and pain while chewing or swallowing.

Laura Lunn, managing attorney for the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network's detention program, said her organization has about a dozen clients who are quarantined in Aurora. Lunn said the facility has made her clients available for meetings as long as they wear a mask, but that she's concerned about the health and safety of her staff, and is looking at alternate ways to meet with them.

None of her clients actually have mumps and all are Mexican or Central American men. "The most profound restriction is people are not being taken for immigration court. They aren't able to move forward with their cases and it's prolonging their detention," Lunn said.

Immigrant advocates have long said that medical care at immigration detention facilities is subpar, and they've filed several lawsuits after deaths or injuries in detention. Elizabeth Jordan of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center said screenings at immigration detention centers are inadequate. She said she doesn't have any current clients who are quarantined in Aurora, but regularly interviews detainees there and has had clients there in the past.

"Neglect, I think, is not really strong enough to describe what's happening in there," Jordan said. For example, there's only one physician on staff, Jordan said. ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said there are 271 detainees quarantined in four pods in the Aurora facility. Over 1,200 detainees are currently housed there.

ICE officials said its quick reaction has led to a very low transmission rate and that it's monitoring detainees and employees for signs of illness at the facility, which has seen a spike in the number of detainees who came through the southern border. They say they have taken a number of measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, such as initial medical screening and a full medical check-up within 14 days.

Jordan said it's difficult for immigrants who are quarantined to access their attorneys. She had clients who were quarantined at a facility in California last year after a chicken pox outbreak that she couldn't reach to relay important information about their cases.

Jordan said the Aurora location has a phone system attorneys can use to reach detainees. In Pine Prairie, about 65 miles (104 kilometers) northwest of Lafayette, about 300 detainees are quarantined, spokesman Bryan D. Cox said. Cox said those who are in what the agency calls a medical cohort still have access to outdoor recreation and dining, it's just that they have to stick with the people they're quarantined with. Detainees also have access to attorneys and are offered a mask.

Cox said 18 people have had mumps at the Pine Prairie facility. They come from eight different countries and were arrested between June of last year and January 2019.

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