By Emma Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO – A hearing resumed here in U.S. District Court Thursday to determine if the Mesa Verde ICD Detention Center should continue to be monitored by the courts after a massive COVID-19 outbreak this summer that sickened a quarter of the staff and more than half of the detainees.
After multiple technical difficulties shortened the court day, proceedings were still much more streamlined earlier in the week, when the judge complained about the slow going.
A brief filed last week charged that ICE and other officials misled the court, and increased the risk of virus transmission, including ignoring CDC protocols. District Court intervened in August and ordered no new detainees should be “introduced,” and ordered weekly testing of staff and detainees. Now ICE wants to lift these restrictions.
The evidentiary hearing in the matter is before Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in the Northern District of California, where ICE officials are testifying under oath. Among those expected to testify are ICE Deputy Field Office Director Erik Bonnar and Acting Deputy Field Office Director Moises Becerra.
Thursday, ICE Attorney Royal Oakes called Dr. Sean Henderson and GEO group facility administrator Nathan Allen, the Chief Medical Officer of the Correctional Health Services Department of Department of Health Services in Los Angeles County. GEO is a civilian contractor at Mesa Verde.
As a practicing physician in Riverside County emergency department and occasionally working in Los Angeles County Jail urgent care, Henderson said he is thoroughly versed in COVID-19 care, prevention, transmission, and response plans to this virus.
Henderson provided abundant sources of evidence regarding CDC guidelines, GEO plans for COVID-19 management, Mesa Verde’s facility administrator’s declaration dealing with the pandemic, GEO visitor screening COVID-19 questionnaire, an ICE pandemic response requirements, Mesa Verde’s medical COVID-19 response plan, as well as others. Henderson agreed that all of the documents provided followed CDC guidelines at their given point in time.
Henderson then completely lost connection to the Zoom hearing and the internet in his office, and Judge Chhabria decided to call the next witness, Field Administrator Nathan Allen. Allen is directly responsible for most of the operations of the Mesa Verde detention facility, and is under contract with ICE.
Allen explained to the court that Mesa Verde can house about 400 detainees, but there are currently only 45 detainees spaced out over three, 100-bed dorms. The final dorm is reserved for detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19. Once these detainees retest after 90 days, they can rejoin the general population.
Attorney David Weinstein then presents numerous pictures of the facility, showing how cleaning carts are available to detainees to clean the dorms, the cafeteria area only allows one detainee per table, only some sinks are available for use in the bathroom to remain distanced, and adequate signage in multiple languages educating detainees on the importance and practice of wearing masks and socially distancing.
Besides all of these adequate provisions, Weinstein submits to evidence more than 10 photos of detainees in various areas of the facilities, none of which portray detainees wearing masks. Allen agrees that he typically does not see detainees wearing masks, and questioning reverts back to Oakes’ examination of Dr. Henderson.
Oakes addresses one of the most important questions that has arisen in this case: Is Mesa Verde’s architectural configuration inherently inadequate to cope with possible COVID-19 outbreaks? Henderson testifies that it is perfectly adequate given it is part of a larger system and detainees can be moved appropriately if Mesa Verde starts to face an issue.
Plaintiffs’ Attorney Sean Rirodan’s cross-examination of Henderson emphasized to the court that the GEO and ICE plans, policies, and procedures for COVID-19 were not specific to Mesa Verde nor being implemented at the facility.
Riordan said that although Henderson testified on Thursday that he doesn’t think it has been studied how far apart people need to sleep from each other to avoid spreading the virus, his deposition agreed with Dr. Greifinger’s opinion that detainees should be sleeping 10 feet apart from each other.
Henderson’s deposition also revealed that he thought saturation testing was a bad idea because if these tests revealed a large number of positive tests, it could make the facility “the subject of much scrutiny” and might force it to “close up shop.”
Riordan uses these statements to discredit Henderson’s expert opinion, suggesting the witness does not recommend saturation tests because detention and correctional facilities would not have the ability to respond to a large number of COVID positive individuals.
Henderson ends his testimony by reiterating to the court that he never expected to keep COVID-19 out of the facilities, and his goal was to “keep whoever we have as safe as possible” and to “protect the vulnerable” from the virus.
Allen is then brought back into the Zoom meeting for more questioning from Weinstein.
Previously contested emails between Allen and a Mesa Verde employee who claimed they had been in close contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 were shown to follow CDC guidelines about asymptomatic essential workers coming to work. Allen asserts he acted according to these guidelines, and adhering to CDC guidelines.
He further explains a plan for bringing in new detainees that included housing the general population in two dorms, the two remaining dormitories used for known-infected individuals, and cohorting intakes.
He said intakes will ideally happen from Monday to Fridays, stopping at Friday which is when the 14-day quarantine period would occur. No intakes would be possible until this period was over and intakes were moved to the general population.
The hearing continues Friday morning at 11 a.m.
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