Mar 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Hundreds of migrant kids with positive COVID-19 tests held in shelters

Influx Care Facility (ICF) for unaccompanied children on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021 in Carrizo Springs, TX. Children will begin arriving Monday before being placed with a government approved sponsor.

Influx Care Facility for unaccompanied children in Carrizo Springs, TX. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Nearly 2,900 unaccompanied minors tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival at U.S. government shelters over the past year — including around 300 currently in the system — a Department of Health and Human Services official tells Axios.

The big picture: The numbers highlight the staggering challenges in trying to manage a child migration crisis during a pandemic, while weighing human rights and child welfare concerns against immigration laws.

Details: Of the unaccompanied children currently in shelters, only about 3% are currently in isolation after testing positive when they arrived, according to the latest statistics provided to Axios.

  • About 7.4% of tests given to unaccompanied minors in the past year turned out positive, according to HHS' stats.
  • "The positivity rate in general is what was anticipated, and planning has resulted in robust response," HHS spokesperson Mark Weber told Axios. There are more than 200 facilities in 22 states.
  • But the positivity rate has been higher — about 10% — at the Carrizo Springs shelter in Texas, opened last month as the first overflow shelter to be used by the Biden administration.
  • Youth are tested upon arrival, Weber said, and those who test positive are taken to a negative-pressure medical isolation bed onsite and get around-the-clock care. Carrizo Springs has 180 nurses, doctors and medical personnel, 12 epidemiologists, and two public health experts.

By the numbers: Since March 24, 2020, 38,932 COVID-19 viral tests were conducted for unaccompanied children entering facilities.

  • There were 2,897 lab-confirmed COVID-19 tests for unaccompanied children in that time period — and 2,578 have recovered and were moved out of medical isolation — according to HHS.
  • Currently, 319 unaccompanied children are in medical isolation, while government data obtained by Axios puts the current number of kids in HHS shelters at more than 11,500.

What we're watching: After crossing the border, unaccompanied minors are first placed in border patrol stations for processing. Customs and Border Protection does not test migrants while in their custody, relying on local public health agencies, nongovernmental organizations and HHS.

  • Minors are only legally supposed to be held for a maximum of 72 hours in the border stations, but due to backlogs in HHS' system of shelters, thousands have been recently held longer than that.
  • Many border facilities are far beyond their pandemic capacity, and photos first reported by Axios reveal crowded, makeshift conditions in at least one temporary overflow shelter.

Go deeper: Houston Public Media has details on the situation in Texas.

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