Health Care

Border Patrol ignored recommendation to vaccinate migrants against the flu

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Federal immigration authorities ignored a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to vaccinate detained migrants against the flu virus, according to a newly released letter to Congress.

According to the letter from the CDC to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the agency recommended that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deliver flu vaccinations “at the earliest feasible point of entry” for all migrants over the age of six months.

A Border Patrol spokesperson said the agency has never had a policy to vaccinate detained migrants, and has no plans to implement one in the future. 

“CBP has significantly expanded medical support efforts, and now has more than 250 medical personnel engaged along the Southwest Border. To try and layer a comprehensive vaccinations system on to that would be logistically very challenging,” an agency spokesperson said.

The letter from CDC Director Robert Redfield was dated Nov. 7, and sent to DeLauro after she raised concerns about the deaths of migrant children from the flu in Border Patrol detention centers. 

The letter was first reported by The Washington Post.

According to the letter, CDC provided written recommendations about flu prevention to Border Patrol officials in January, and held weekly calls related to influenza cases with the agency beginning in late May and continuing through July 4. 

Flu season typically occurs between October and May, and peaks in the U.S. between January and February.

According to autopsy results, at least two children have died in U.S. custody in part as a result of the flu since the recommendations were made. Doctors groups also raised concerns that detention centers are at high risk for influenza outbreaks, especially ones that combine rapid turnover of detainees with long-term detention.

Border Patrol centers are meant for short-term detentions only. Migrants transferred to other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are given vaccinations and full medical screenings.

“There are other organizations involved within the immigration process where those programs are in place. For CBP to try and duplicate that wouldn’t make sense from a law enforcement, public health or good governance perspective,” the agency spokesperson said.

The CDC recommends annual flu shots for everyone more than 6 months old.

But the transfers out of CBP custody may not happen immediately, and children have been held in overcrowded conditions that make it easy for infectious diseases to spread quickly among those who are not vaccinated. 

According to Redfield, CDC officials visited Border Patrol detention facilities in El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Ariz., in December and January. The CDC concluded that because of inadequate medical infrastructure, “illness in the Border Patrol facilities stresses both the Border Patrol staff and community medical infrastructure.”

During the CDC visits, teams tested 65 people, and six of them tested positive for influenza. None of people with the flu were unaccompanied children. 

Tags flu vaccine Rosa DeLauro

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