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Doctors demand flu shots for detained migrants

FILE – In this July 9, 2019, file photo, immigrants line up in the dinning hall at the U.S. governments holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A year after two children died in Border Patrol custody, a group of doctors is calling on U.S. Customs and Border Protection to allow them to provide free flu shots for detained migrants to help prevent other deaths.

Influenza claimed the life of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo last year while he was in Border Patrol custody in Alamogordo on Christmas Eve.

Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, became deathly ill in early December last year after crossing the border with her father and a group of Central Americans in Antelope Wells. She later died in an El Paso hospital of a bacterial infection, according to the medical examiner.

Felipe Alonzo Gomez (AP file)

The call for improved medical attention for migrants in custody to curtail the spread of contagious illnesses comes as peak flu season begins.

The doctors first offered to provide a “free flu clinic” for detained migrants in a letter to CBP in early November. They grew more insistent after ProPublica reported on the death of a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala in a holding cell in South Texas. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died of complications from influenza in May. The investigative report last week included video inside the holding cell that shows Border Patrol agents did not provide “welfare checks” as they had reported, and Hernandez Vasquez was found unresponsive by another sick youth sharing the same holding cell. At least three migrant children died of flu-related causes during the 2018-19 flu season.

“Flu deaths are preventable and large-scale vaccination is not unprecedented. Our government has undertaken similar efforts in the past and has the resources to do so now,” Dr. Marie DeLuca said in a statement issued by the doctors offering to provide free vaccinations for migrants.

On Monday, doctors showed up at a Border Patrol station in San Isidro, California, with vaccines but were turned away at the gate.

“This is about a complete disregard for human life, government accountability and a failure of our government to protect not only the people held in detention, but all people within our borders,” said DeLuca, who is with Doctors for Camp Closures. The organization includes 2,000 physicians and health care professionals opposed to detaining migrants.

Migrants sent to long-term detention in ICE facilities or children transferred to shelters authorized by the Department of Health and Human Services do get flu shots.

But CBP has said because it only has temporary custody of people, it is not set up to vaccinate. Last winter, during the migrant influx that led to crowded Border Patrol holding cells, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that CBP provide flu vaccinations “at the earliest feasible point of entry for all persons at least six months of age,” according to a letter sent to the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Health and Human Services in response to a question about influenza.

During last flu season, thousands of migrant parents with children seeking asylum were released from custody to await their immigration court hearings.

After the deaths of the two migrant children last December, the acting CBP commissioner ordered all children under 10 years old get medical screenings and increased to 250 the number of medical personnel assigned to the Mexican border. Adults and children who require serious medical attention are taken to nearby hospitals, according to CBP.

Jakelin Caal Maquin. (Courtesy of the family of Jakelin Caal Maquin)

The Journal reported in July about a medical screening form that, according to the Border Patrol, was filled out ahead of time and signed, indicating migrants had been cleared to travel before they had undergone any medical checks. Border Patrol agents in the El Paso Sector, which includes New Mexico, complained about the form in June and said the only blank space was the area where they were supposed to fill in the migrant’s name. That form was removed after the complaint, according to agents.