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Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democrats and public health experts are concerned that the Trump administration's immigration policies could scare immigrants away from getting medical help as the coronavirus spreads.

What we're watching: Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told senators on Thursday that health care facilities are already "sensitive locations" where immigration enforcement isn't carried out, except in "exigent circumstances."

Why it matters: To slow the deadly coronavirus, Americans need to be able to get tested and see doctors. For immigrants, though, that can involve trusting the federal agencies that have made it harder for them to stay in the country.

  • "This administration has given immigrants very little reason to believe them," Migration Policy Institute's Sarah Pierce told Axios.

What they're saying: "It’s potentially a really large public health problem,” said Wake Forest's Christine Coughlin, who has written about unauthorized immigrants' compliance with quarantines. "I believe there is a perception that if you were to go and seek treatment or seek testing, you could be potentially reported and then potentially deported.”

  • The higher uninsured rate among non-citizens is "likely to be especially dangerous during a pandemic," Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at the Northeastern University School of Law, wrote in an op-ed Wednesday.

Between the lines: Through new public charge rules, the administration has begun penalizing some immigrants and visa applicants who use or are considered likely to use certain public programs, including Medicaid programs.

  • Even before the policies took effect, immigrants were reportedly dropping out of Medicaid or public nutrition programs out of fear of being blocked from a green card — a sign that the chilling effect is real.
  • Democratic Senators sent letters this week to multiple administration officials calling for them to suspend "all immigration enforcement activities" near medical facilities, and to rescind the public charge rule.

The other side: A DHS spokesperson pushed back on the impact the public charge rule would have on immigrants seeking medical care. "Nowhere in the rule does it say an immigrant will be denied a change in status if they seek medical care," the spokesperson said.

In the past, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued public guidance during natural disasters to assure immigrants they would not be arrested for getting medical help, former acting ICE director John Sandweg told Axios.

  • He said the same should be done in response to the coronavirus.
  • "The reality is that ICE is very reluctant to arrest and detain anyone with a contagious disease," Sandweg said. "While the risks of arrest are low, the fear in the immigrant communities is real."

The bottom line: Immigrants are unlikely to be impacted by public charge or arrested by ICE while getting emergency medical help. But fear and uncertainty could be enough to stop them.

  • “In general, the very anxiety-ridden environment this administration has created for immigrants drastically decreases the likelihood that immigrants will come forward," Pierce said.

Go deeper

Firefighters end search for bodies at Surfside

A picture in the memorial that has photographs of some of the victims from the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on July 15 in Surfside, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Firefighters on Friday concluded their search for bodies at the site of the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida.

Driving the news: 97 people were killed and one woman, Estelle Hedaya, remains missing.

Updated 38 mins ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

🚨: Team USA closes out Day 1 with no medals for 1st time since 1972

📺: The Olympic events to watch today

🛹: Athlete spotlight - Nyjah Huston hopes to skate his way into Olympic history

🇺🇸: After loss to Sweden, U.S. women's soccer team overwhelms New Zealand

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👻: How the no-spectator Olympics could affect the athletes

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Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

1 hour ago - Sports

Jill Biden cheers on Team USA at Tokyo Olympics

Jill Biden congratulates U.S. women 3x3 basketball team after the first round 3x3 basketball match. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

First lady Jill Biden attended three Olympic events on Saturday and hosted a watch party at the U.S. Embassy for the Team USA-Mexico softball game.

Driving the news: On her first day as a spectator at the Games, Biden attended a women's 3x3 basketball game, cheered on American swimmers during preliminary heats and caught the second half of the U.S. women's soccer game against New Zealand.