Arizona Health Officials: ICE Prison Workers Refusing Measles Vaccine

July 06, 2016
Michel Marizco
Inmate is led into Pima County Jail by a guard.
Michel Marizco
A biohazard sign at the Pima County Jail infirmary.
Michel Marizco
Hallway leading into interior of the Pima County Jail.

As of Saturday, health officials have discovered 22 measles cases in Arizona since late May. But they say it's federal employees from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) working at the detention center refusing to be vaccinated or to show they were already immunized against the potentially deadly disease that are fueling the virus. And now, health officials believe staff are exposing their own family members to the virus.

It started May 24 when Pinal County health department Director Thomas Schryer got the call — there was a measles case reported at the Eloy Detention Center. 

"An individual showed up to the emergency room at Banner Desert and identified themselves as having a rash and symptoms consistent with measles," he recalled.

That person was a contract employee at the detention center. Within two days, health workers were reporting possible exposure at a casino and at a convenience store in Casa Grande. 

Shryer had seen this before. Last year an unvaccinated Pinal County family visited Disneyland and came home with the measles. This time, however, the source of the outbreak is the Eloy Detention Center with an immigrant population of more than 1,200 people from all over the world. Except Shryer said it’s not those immigrants who are at risk of spreading the virus. They’ve all been vaccinated. 

"The problem is with the staff that don’t want to comply with our recommendation that started on day one, which is to become vaccinated or provide proof of immunity," he said.

The U.S. government pays the private Corrections Corporation of America to operate the detention center. A spokesman said most of their employees have been vaccinated or agreed to show proof they have been. Last week, Pinal County had more CCA employees show up for the free vaccinations provided by Shryer’s office. And he said employees from other companies that work at the center like the private food vendor also showed up for vaccines as soon as they were offered. 

But of the approximately 150 ICE employees who work at the Eloy Detention Center, county officials said potentially many of them have refused to be vaccinated or to show they’ve already been immunized.

"It seems to be, without having first-hand knowledge, they simply don’t want to be told what to do," Shryer said.

He says health officials are also meeting resistance from ICE. 

"They’re saying this is protected health information and they can’t provide it to us but that’s usually not the case when we’re talking about an outbreak," he said.

He said the federal agency itself is preventing health officials from passing on their request for ICE employees to show they’re vaccinated, citing privacy concerns. 

"This is something for the lawyers to hash out. But we really don’t have time for the lawyers to hash this out," said Shryer.

Health officials believe it’s already out in the community. On Father’s Day, a prison employee might have exposed his 8-month-old niece to the measles in Pinal County. That child developed a rash.

"We’ve been trying to have contact with the family, once we asked the family to not take this child around the community because we thought they were probably infected with the measles. The family refused all contact with us," Shryer said.

An ICE official refused to be interviewed and sent a statement that was also sent out last week stating that immunizations were provided to ICE employees. The official said ICE employees are not required to receive measles immunizations. That’s having an impact on local jails as well. In Pima County, corrections chief India Davis said the county jail requires immunization. 

"Absolutely, it is not voluntary," Davis said. "It is part of that physical that we require before we hire an employee."

As a result, since the measles outbreak, Pima County has suspended all contact between its jail personnel and inmates and the Eloy Detention Center.

"We’ve not really heard what followup they’re doing or what they’re doing to prevent it in the future or how they’ve identified other inmates who might have been exposed or staff who was exposed," Davis said.

Shryer said health officials may ask Gov. Doug Ducey to declare a state of emergency and use that to authorize health officials to legally compel ICE employees to show their vaccines or receive the immunizations.