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Medical Experts Urge DHS, ICE to Provide COVID-19 Booster Doses to Detention Populations as Infection Rates Soar

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) letter warns of “grave danger” without more access to mRNA boosters for migrants and asylum seekers in U.S. detention

Medical professionals are raising the alarm about the U.S. government’s failure to provide COVID-19 vaccine booster doses to migrants and asylum seekers in government detention. In a letter addressed to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Tae D. Johnson, leading medical professionals and public health experts expressed grave concern over the relative lack of access to  COVID-19 vaccine boosters for the more than 21,000 immigrants held daily in government detention centers. 

The open letter calls out ICE’s failure to issue any policy regarding COVID-19 booster doses for more than 200 immigration detention facilities, where only 3 percent of eligible immigrants have received a booster dose and detainee infections have reached a pandemic high amid the spread of the Omicron variant. The PHR letter follows a lawsuit filing today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of the District of Columbia against DHS and ICE on behalf of medically vulnerable immigrants in detention, who have been diagnosed with underlying conditions and who have requested and been denied COVID-19 booster shots. 

“While releasing people from detention would be the best way to save lives of immigrants and frontline staff, being up to date on vaccines is critical to safeguarding health,” said Dr. Parveen Parmar, associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “As a doctor and public health practitioner, I join my colleagues in calling on DHS to immediately ensure mRNA boosters for all people in immigration detention to fulfill their obligation to provide humane conditions in detention.”

The statement reads, “The number of COVID-19 infections in immigration detention rose by 520 percent in the first two weeks of January 2022 alone. As of January 27, 2022, 3,129 people in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19, comprising over 14 percent of the 21,602 people currently detained nationwide.” High transmissibility of the Omicron variant, coupled with risks posed from the congregant nature of detention and the inability of individuals to maintain social distance, supports a heightened urgency to distribute COVID-19 treatments, the letter argues. 

ICE currently relies on the single-dose Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine for detainees, despite recognition from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the J&J vaccine offers limited protection against COVID-19 when compared to mRNA-based vaccines like those produced by Pfizer and Moderna. The widespread use of the J&J vaccine further heightens the need for a robust booster program in order to protect people in ICE custody. The open letter recommends that the agency act quickly to secure mRNA vaccine doses, while also implementing a booster mandate to ensure adequate protection.

The full letter can be found here. Signers include medical professionals from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, among others.
Please reach out if you’d like to speak further with experts from PHR and/or the ACLU, or signers of the letter, including Dr. Parveen Parmar of the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine; Dr. Adam Richards of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health; Dr. Eleanor Emery of Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance; Dr. Altaf Saadi of Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Amy Zeidan of Emory University School of Medicine. 

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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