A member of the medical staff at Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey has tested positive for coronavirus, the first case confirmed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of an employee contracting the virus, ICE confirmed Thursday.
The agency said no detainees in ICE custody currently have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Immigrant advocates and public health experts have expressed concerns about the impact of the virus on immigrant detainees, because infectious diseases have long been a scourge at these facilities, and several have been criticized for inadequate medical care and fetid conditions.
An ICE spokesman, Emilio Dabul, did not specify what measures were being taken to protect detainees at the facility. The agency says they have a pandemic workforce protection plan in place. ICE has suspended social visits to all facilities nationwide and says it has supplies at facilities, including N95 masks, respirators and personal protective gear.
After experiencing symptoms of the virus, the employee at the Elizabeth center self-quarantined and was tested. Dabul said the staff member had limited contact with detainees, but did work in the facility’s medical ward, where immigrant detainees are treated.
ICE said no other detainees or staff are symptomatic at the Elizabeth facility.
The agency said it has been consulting public health officials, its own epidemiologists and other specialists to provide guidance for screening, quarantine or potential isolation of symptomatic individuals.
Anwen Hughes, deputy legal director of Human Rights First, which provides legal resources to detainees at the facility, said she was concerned for the safety of detainees who are crammed into the Elizabeth center. “Everyone is cheek by jowl,” she said.
The Elizabeth facility currently holds 195 immigrants, with a capacity of 300, according to a supervisor who answered the telephone over the weekend but declined to give his name. It is operated by CoreCivic, a private prison company under contract with ICE. There are 15 medical workers on staff at the Elizabeth facility, according to ICE.
The detention center has drawn criticism for its sanitary conditions in the past. In 2018, a Human Rights First report noted detainees at the facility complained of worms and maggots in the food and showers, women given only two or three pairs of underwear a week and poor medical access.
Last summer, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey, visited the Elizabeth facility and reported poor conditions to NJ.com along the lines of those reported by Human Rights First. “It’s stark,” he said. “They don’t have separate dormitories. They have a cot and they’re all together.”
ICE did not comment on the complaints about conditions at the facility.
On Friday morning, ICE said that only the employee at the Elizabeth detention center had tested positive; on Thursday, ICE had said one other employee had contracted coronavirus. This story is updated to reflect the change.