ICE Detainees in Aurora Receive COVID Vaccine

Detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Kenzie Bruce
Thirteen months after COVID-19 claimed its first victim in Colorado, a majority of the detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility have received a vaccine for the virus.

The Tri-County Health Department held an April 8 vaccination clinic at the facility, which is run by private-prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both staff and detainees were able to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires a single dose.

"Our clients have been held in a pressure cooker with the stress of their cases and detention being compounded by also fearing for their health," says Laura Lunn, an attorney who works with ICE detainees through the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. Social distancing has been difficult in the facility. The detainees sleep in close-quartered cells with other roommates; around 20 percent are held in a large, gymnasium-style annex with bunk beds.

Partially because of the fear of spreading the virus. ICE detainee numbers are down significantly at the facility, which has a maximum capacity of over 1,500. In March 2020, the facility housed 607 ICE detainees; today the daily population count usually hovers just above 200.

As of April 2, 228 ICE detainees were at the Aurora facility; 79 U.S. Marshals detainees housed at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility were also eligible for the vaccine. On April 8, 185 detainees received it —- over 60 percent of the current population. Some detainees had already been fully or partially vaccinated.

"Overall, the number of their new intakes continues to be low," says Bernadette Albanese, medical epidemiologist for the Tri-County Health Department. "Some of their detainees are coming from other facilities in Utah or Wyoming, and some of them may have received a first dose at the previous facility. The Tri-County Health Department is going to continue to work with GEO staff to coordinate vaccination for the detainees’ second doses once they are eligible."

Fifty staff members at the facility also received vaccines during the clinic; some staffers had already been vaccinated at earlier Tri-County Health Department clinics. GEO Group does not require that its employees be vaccinated in order to come to work.

While the vaccine provides some relief from fears of COVID, it "doesn't solve the problems inherent with civil immigration incarceration," Lunn points out. "The ICE detainees in Aurora are a mix of undocumented immigrants with and without criminal charges or convictions, legal residents with criminal convictions, and asylum seekers."

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, various dormitories at the ICE facility had dealt with outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as mumps and chicken pox. In the fall of 2020, it was the site of an extended COVID outbreak among both ICE and U.S. Marshals detainees. But while a total of 185 ICE detainees at the facility have tested positive for COVID since the pandemic began, none have tested positive in recent weeks, according to ICE's website, and there have been no deaths. And although 34 U.S. Marshals detainees have tested positive over the course of the pandemic, none have tested positive recently. 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.