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After an Insider investigation, ICE reverses its claim that it asked states to vaccinate detained immigrants

After an Insider investigation, ICE reverses its claim that it asked states to vaccinate detained immigrants

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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reversed its previous claim that it was “working with state and local health departments to ensure that the ICE detainee population is included in state vaccination plans,” following an Insider investigation that found the federal agency has no plan to vaccinate the almost 14,000 immigrants in its custody against COVID-19.

ICE told Insider in January that it was in “ongoing dialogues” with state and local health officials about vaccinations for detainees — but dozens of health departments said that wasn’t true.

Most states have not begun vaccinating detained immigrants. Several directed Insider back to ICE, suggesting that because of the absence of federal guidance, they do not have plans to do so.

Last week, ICE changed its initial story, saying instead that its parent agency — the Department of Homeland Security — shared “the number of vaccines required for detainees” with Operation Warp Speed, the partnership between the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services that oversaw COVID-19 vaccination efforts under the Trump administration.

“Our communication to the states about the number of vaccines required for detainees was through DHS vaccine planners to Operation Warp Speed staff for them to incorporate the amount for detainees into state and local allocations,” ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett told Insider.

But Operation Warp Speed never told health departments to provide vaccines to ICE detainees, Kirsten Allen, an HHS spokesperson, told Insider. Operation Warp Speed “has given [state health departments] no direction on prioritization of detainees within their state plans,” Allen said.

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The conflicting responses to Insider’s questions indicate that no federal agency has taken responsibility for immunizing ICE detainees against a disease that has killed half a million people in the US. Insider has found no evidence that DHS or ICE ever informed states that they — not the federal government — would be tasked with vaccinating detained immigrants, who are housed across the country in a mix of local jails and private facilities.

Public health experts said that people in congregate settings like prisons and jails are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 and should be prioritized for the vaccine.

“Several reports have shown that prisons and detention facilities are hotspots for COVID,” said Tom Frieden, the CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017. “There are already huge disparities when it comes to vaccine uptake and availability for racial minorities. We don’t want to widen this gap by missing key segments of the population who are detained.”

Several states confirmed to Insider that Operation Warp Speed did not instruct them to vaccinate immigrants in ICE custody. Paul Byers, the Mississippi state epidemiologist, told Insider that the Mississippi State Department of Health “has not received any specific communication from OWS regarding vaccination of ICE detainees.”

The Maryland Department of Health said much the same. “OWS didn’t contact MDH about ICE detainees,” a spokesperson told Insider. And a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said it “did not receive communications from Operation Warp Speed about ICE detainees.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which previously declined to comment on Insider’s investigation, confirmed to Insider that it had communicated with Operation Warp Speed about COVID-19 vaccines for detained immigrants, but declined to elaborate on the record.

The White House also did not respond to a request for comment. Last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the Biden administration would restructure Operation Warp Speed, citing the “urgent need to address failures of the Trump team approach to vaccine distribution.”

Some states suggested that without federal guidance, they are not taking responsibility for vaccinating ICE detainees.

Insider previously contacted health departments in all 40 states where ICE detention facilities are located. None said ICE had contacted them about COVID-19 vaccination plans for detained immigrants. Nineteen state and five local health departments explicitly said they had not been contacted by the agency at all. Insider’s records requests for communications between ICE and state health officials turned up no evidence of coordination.

Bennett, the ICE spokesperson, told Insider that ICE is committed to the health and welfare of those in its custody.

“COVID-19 vaccines for ICE detainees are being allocated by local and state health departments, and were incorporated into the total COVID-19 vaccine amount distributed by the federal government to each state,” she said in the agency’s revised statement.

The new statement suggests that states with more ICE detainees received more vaccines. But as Insider reported in its investigation, many states seemed unaware that their federal allocations included doses meant for detainees.

Health departments in New York, Maryland, New Mexico, and Texas directed Insider’s questions to ICE, suggesting they were not taking responsibility for vaccinating immigrants in ICE custody. The Florida Department of Health said that because ICE is a federal program, it expected vaccines to come from the federal allocation.

Bennett confirmed to Insider that DHS never received a direct allocation of vaccines for detainees in its custody. Asked whether any federal agency had shared this information with state and local health departments, she declined to comment further.

SUBSCRIBE NOW TO READ THE FULL STORY: ICE has no plan to vaccinate 13,860 immigrants in its custody against COVID-19. Here’s how one of the US’s most at-risk groups is falling through the cracks.

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