State health officials have alerted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a potential for the outbreak of disease in border facilities where thousands of children are being detained.
Four weeks ago, June 15-16, the Texas Department of State Health Services sent two of its staff to federal detention facilities in Brownsville and McAllen. They wanted to observe conditions where thousands of migrant children from Central America are awaiting immigration hearings.
A one-page summary of findings provided to KERA details severe overcrowding: five-and-a-half square feet of living space per child, when national standards call for 20 square feet.
Children with contagious infections like scabies and lice were not adequately separated from the general population.
Because of crowding, some children were held for days in an area without air conditioning where they slept on the concrete, were exposed to insects and temperatures reached 100 degrees.
“There are toilets in the cells where kids eat and sleep and that opens the possibility for spread of disease,” said Carrie Williams, a spokesperson for State Health Services. “When you have people in close quarters there is just an increased risk.”
She said one of the biggest concerns was a lack of hand washing facilities.
Williams says Texas Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey visited the same facilities again last Wednesday. The area without air conditioning was not being used but little else had changed.
She says Dr. Lakey contacted CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
"We have urged more CDC involvement given their expertise in disease management,” she said.
In an email the CDC said it’s consulting with a separate federal agency that provides medical screenings after the children are moved from the detention centers to longer term housing.
Getting details, however, about what happens during the days or weeks the children are in detention is difficult. Numerous agencies are responsible for different aspects of the children’s due process and care.
We requested information and an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection which oversees the detention centers but have not received a response.
Jessica Maxwell, with the Office of Health Affairs, a division of Homeland Security, described a three-step process for screening children shortly after they're taken into custody.
Her agency first makes sure the children are visually checked for signs of illness like rashes or coughing. If symptoms are observed they’re checked a second time by medical professionals. Children diagnosed with serious medical problems are transferred to local medical facilities.
“If someone is found to have a communicable disease then they are quarantined from the general detainee population,” said Maxwell who did not know how many children if nay have been quarantined.
Williams says State Health Services would like to see more thorough health screenings for all children before they enter detention.
She says so far the level of illness reported to her agency has been consistent with what’s in Texas’ general population: three children with flu, three with tuberculosis and more than several dozen with chicken pox.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has repeatedly said the public should not be concerned that 2,000 of these children may soon be transferred to shelters in Dallas County.
“The diseases these children may carry are diseases for the most part that go through every elementary school in DISD every year and the more serious diseases are diseases we treat at Parkland every day,” Judge Jenkins said recently.
But Williams says State Health Services is concerned that conditions in the detention facilities are ripe for disease among a population that may have reduced resistance after an exhausting, trauma-filled journey.