WASHINGTON - As the flu season reaches its peak in December and January, the Trump administration has again rejected an offer by an American physicians group of free flu vaccinations for detained undocumented immigrants.
Physicians from Doctors for Camp Closure sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offering a flu shot pilot program to detainees at a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility at no cost to the federal government.
The CBP said this is not a new policy, that it has never been the agency’s practice to administer vaccines to migrants.
On Friday, the physicians group reaffirmed its commitment to vaccinate migrants.
“We have the vaccinations and are ready to deliver them as soon as we receive permission, but have not been granted access by CBP or DHS,” said Marie DeLuca, an emergency physician from New York City who helped co-found Doctors for Camp Closure.
“Individuals in CBP custody should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in either CBP hold rooms or holding facilities,” CBP spokesman Matthew Dyman wrote to VOA in an email. “Every effort is made to hold detainees for the least amount of time required for their processing, transfer, release or repatriation as appropriate and operationally feasible.”
At least 3 flu deaths
During last year’s flu season, at least three children died of the flu while in CBP custody, according to reports.
But Dyman said that because CBP is a law enforcement agency and because of the short amount of time migrants are held and other logistical challenges, operating a vaccine program is not feasible.
Both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Health and Human Services “have comprehensive medical support services and can provide vaccinations as appropriate to those in their custody,” he said.
The physicians organization, which has 2,000 physician members, was formed a few months ago. The group had outlined a plan to vaccinate about 100 migrants in a San Diego, California, facility, and then expand and vaccinate more migrants.
A lot can happen in 72 hours
Commenting on CBP’s 72-hour hold statement, Danielle Deines, a pediatrician in Virginia and member of the group, said a lot can happen in 72 hours for someone with the flu.
“You can have a number of migrants exposed in that amount of time. … People who are going to come into this really crowded situation are already vulnerable from a health standpoint because their bodies are stressed based on the travel and things that they’ve had to do just to get [to the border]. And then you’re placing them in a place where there’s limited access to anything to maintain hygiene, so it’s a kind of a great setup for getting the flu,” Deines said.
She said the flu vaccine cuts the risk of hospitalization, intensive care admission, and death.
“There’s multiple reasons why this is important. And I think the biggest one is that they’re not following their own protocols as far as how long they’re putting people [in detention] and how they’re handling in keeping people healthy,” she said.
CBP has not been able to limit time in its custody to 72 hours, spokesman Dyman said.
“However, that is still the goal and the agency, working with partners, is still doing everything it can to move people out of temporary CBP holding facilities,” he said.
Teen died of flu
During the 2018-2019 flu season, at least three children died of the flu while in CBP custody, according to reports.
One of those people was Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old boy. In a video, shot earlier this year and published Thursday by ProPublica, Vásquez is visibly disoriented and motionless after he collapsed in his concrete cell around 1:36 a.m. The migrant Guatemalan boy died May 20.
Though border officials said the boy was found “unresponsive this morning during a welfare check,” the video ProPublica published shows another migrant boy, who shared the cell with Vásquez, was the one to discover Vásquez four hours later in the same position and unresponsive.
Vásquez was detained in the Border Patrol station in south Texas. An autopsy revealed he died of the flu and other complications.
A CBP spokesperson told VOA the investigation into his death is ongoing.
Flu activity elevated
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website shows that seasonal influenza activity in the United States has been “elevated for four weeks and continues to increase.” CDC recommends that everyone 6 months old and older get a flu vaccine each season.
Though CBP has more than 250 medical personnel along the U.S. Mexico border, which includes a mix of nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, Deines, of Doctors for Camp Closure, said they are not qualified to diagnose patients.
Doctors for Camp Closure co-founder DeLuca said Vásquez’s death was preventable, adding that childhood death from influenza is rare in the U.S. because of preventative measures such as flu vaccines, and because of the medical care received by children in offices and hospitals across the country.
“To see a child suffering as [Vásquez] did in that video is horrifying and inhumane. His death was preventable. ... The video also makes it clear that detention is unsafe and can have deadly consequences,” DeLuca said.