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COVID-19 Cases Spike at Farmville ICE Detention Center

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As of last week, more than 70% of people detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Farmville, Virginia, have tested positive for COVID-19. It's a dramatic spike in positive cases since none had been confirmed as recently as the end of May. Jenny Gathright is a reporter for WAMU in Washington, DC, who's been following this story. 


Editor’s note: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: You've spoken to some of the individuals detained at this facility. How do they describe the conditions that they're living under to you?

GATHRIGHT: People are scared. People who are detained in Farmville describe an environment where people everywhere around them are sick and where they in some cases themselves, are exhibiting symptoms of the virus and now have tested positive for the virus. On Friday, I spoke with a man who told me that he knows of only about two people in his 70 person dorm whose coronavirus tests came back negative. It's clear that many people in Farmville are sick and are sick with the Coronavirus and are coughing and having trouble breathing, all the symptoms we associate with a virus.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: You also spoke with family members of detainees. This is Norma, who has asked for us to not use her last name, talking about her husband.

NORMA: “He is a human being, and not just my husband, but every single one of these people in there. They're human beings and they deserve respect.”

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: Jenny, what are some concerns that Norma and others have expressed about their loved ones?

GATHRIGHT: They just want to make sure they're hearing from their family members regularly, and they want to see them come home. Norma said that money is really tight in her household right now, but she says that she would find a way to get the money to quarantine her husband in a hotel room if he could just be released. And I think that's something you hear repeatedly from people, that they're just worried that their family members are sick and are not getting the care that they need.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: Now, as we see this spike in coronavirus cases at this facility, you reported that there were other detainees being brought in from other states, correct?

GATHRIGHT: Yes, so people detained at Farmville and their lawyers are linking this recent outbreak of cases to transfers of detainees to Farmville from detention centers in Florida and Arizona at the beginning of June. Ultimately, 51 of those 74 people ended up testing positive for their coronavirus, and then if you fast forward to the end of June, that's when lawyers for people who had been detained at Farmville before those transfers started reporting that their clients were sick and that many people in the facility were sick. And then ultimately, ICE did universal testing, and it surfaced an alarming positivity rate, that more than 70% of people in the facility are confirmed to be positive for COVID-19 at that point.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: And in light of all these positive cases, how is ICE responding to this?

GATHRIGHT: ICE says it does separate detainees who test positive from those who do not, and that it is providing medical screenings in the facility, temperature checks, and it says it's added hand washing stations, hand sanitizer, it's distributing masks, including N95 masks, to people inside the facility. But I think one thing that's clear, at least from the immigration lawyers I've spoken with, is that any effort that ICE made to keep people separated did not seem to work in keeping the virus from spreading to the rest of the facility.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: And these lawyers you've spoken to and other immigrant advocacy groups, what are they demanding from ICE in response to this? 

GATHRIGHT: They want to see people released from the facility, particularly those who are the most medically vulnerable to the virus because of underlying conditions they have. They also want to see better medical care for their clients. But I think the number one demand is for as many people to be released from the facility as possible. 

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: Okay, well, Jenny, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

GATHRIGHT: Thank you, Alan.

RODRIGUEZ ESPINOZA: Jenny Gathright is a reporter with WAMU in Washington DC.


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