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Judge orders new health inspection at Virginia immigration center with large coronavirus outbreak

An immigration detention center in Farmville, Va., is the site of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak inside such a facility. (Steve Helber)

A federal judge Monday ordered a new inspection at a Virginia immigration detention center hit hard by the coronavirus after learning that some of the facility’s staff members were still not properly wearing protective masks, while others continued working shortly after showing symptoms of the illness.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema expressed frustration that the Trump administration and Immigration Centers of America, the company that operates the Farmville center, have not more forcefully moved to stem the outbreak, which is the largest inside a facility of its kind in the country. Most of the center’s population of nearly 300 detainees are being monitored for the virus, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This is not rocket science,” Brinkema said during a court hearing for a lawsuit filed on behalf of detainees, after also learning that the center’s dining areas do not appear to accommodate physical distancing and that a policy for detainees to sleep at least six feet apart may not have been strictly enforced.

“It’s amazing to me that this would not have been done in a facility, which, because of the large inmate population, should have been on clear notice that you’ve got to have people distanced in order to prevent spread of the virus,” said Brinkema, who last week ordered ICE to stop transferring detainees into the facility. “The fact that not all employees are wearing masks, or PPE, correctly is very problematic.”

Attorneys for ICE and Immigration Centers for America agreed to allow two public health experts to inspect the facility later this week — one representing detainees’ interests and the other those of ICE and the company.

“We’re doing the best we can at ICA Farmville to implement as much social distancing opportunities as we can for the detainees and we would welcome other opportunities,” John M. Erbach, an attorney for the company, told the judge.

The hearing, part of a lawsuit filed in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court last month, was held after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed a week-long visit to the facility that was done at the request of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and the state’s two U.S. senators.

Northam, U.S. Senators ask for CDC’s help with covid-19 outbreak inside immigrant detention center

In an oral debriefing on Friday, a 10-person CDC team said most of the facility was in compliance with CDC pandemic guidelines and that staff members and detainees who had not been diagnosed with the coronavirus were tested, according to court documents.

But the CDC team noted problems with mask-wearing among staff and employees returning to work after showing signs of having the virus, according to a court-filed account of the confidential debriefing by Homer Venters, a public health expert retained by the plaintiffs’ attorneys who was allowed to listen in.

The team of scientists also said physical distancing is difficult near the center’s entrance, inside staff break rooms and inside the facility’s kitchen, Venters’s account said.

A CDC spokesperson did not return a message for comment Monday. An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment.

Brinkema said she is also concerned that the facility’s dining areas have tables with seats permanently affixed closely together. With far more detainees than tables, crowding during meal times seems likely, she said.

“When one is eating, their mask is off,” Brinkema said. “That needs to be addressed pretty promptly because that is where spread can occur.”

The possibility that infected staff members are carrying the virus out of the detention center has fueled concern in the surrounding town of Farmville, particularly after one detainee — James Thomas Hill, 72 — died earlier this month after being hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Farmville hosts the detention center through an intergovernmental agreement with ICE that allows the town to collect some of the revenue generated by Immigration Centers of America while it operates the site.

During a town council meeting last week, Jeffrey Crawford, the facility’s director, said half of those infected have had “low-grade fever” and that every detainee has been screened for the virus twice per day, with none recently testing positive.

“We understand the stories look terrible,” said Crawford, a defendant in the lawsuit that, among other things, alleges 74 detainees were transferred into the facility from other areas of the country without first being quarantined. “But I can tell you that I have been present at the facility through the entire ordeal and it was not a dire situation.”

Council member Greg Cole, who is the chief executive of a local retirement community, upbraided Crawford at the meeting for not being more transparent about the problem.

“Your lack of communication put this community and the vulnerable people in this community at risk,” Cole said. “We could have had massive deaths because of it. And, you’re sitting here talking about everything you’ve done and ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ It’s a big deal.”