The Biden administration is not testing children in Customs and Border Protection facilities for the coronavirus as tens of thousands remain in government custody amid a migrant surge on the southern border — even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges “an increased risk for COVID-19 outbreaks” in these settings.
The new information comes after the release of photographs of one facility in Donna, Texas ‒ that’s being used to process unaccompanied minors who cross the border ‒ showing dozens of children being held with no room to practice social distance.
“Any indoor gathering where people are congregating closely without masks represents a risk,” said Marty Makary, a Fox News contributor and professor of public health and management at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “The pandemic is not over and settings like these threaten the progress made in reducing transmission.”
Meanwhile, as vaccine access expands and case numbers drop, millions of Americans are still subject to social distancing and other virus-related rules that limit businesses’ ability to operate at full capacity and keep many from filling their houses of worship. Children who can go to school in-person are seeing their learning experiences altered significantly, with three-foot social distancing guidelines, masks, and sometimes even no playground equipment.
During a news call on Friday, an administration official said that when children arrive at CBP facilities they are not immediately tested even as about 10% of children eventually test positive for the virus, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“We are not performing testing inside Border Patrol facilities,” an administration official said. They are only being tested when they are “transferred” to other intake facilities run by departments like HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the official said.
“Unaccompanied children, those who are being transferred from Border Patrol stations to border intake centers, are tested before they get on a bus and cohorted, and different sites will take positive children and can have the space to make that work,” an administration official also said.
An administration official claimed that the crowding at border facilities early in the Biden administration is largely the fault of inaction from the Trump administration.
“They were expelling children until the court shut that down and they had to start processing kids as required by the law,” an official said. “The Biden transition team did make clear that influx facilities were going to be needed but they did not initiate that process until Jan. 15. So when we’re asked why we didn’t stand up the facilities fast enough, it’s because we were not in charge until Jan. 20 and this is a multi-week process.”
But even after children are taken from border facilities like the one in Donna, Texas, they go to HHS sites, where social distancing is scarce as well.
Rep. Van Taylor, R-Texas, who visited the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, said the children there are packed in much closer than the Biden administration’s health guidelines.
“They’re not socially distanced. They’re sleeping head to foot,” Taylor said.
That same location saw four teens leave without authorization, according to FOX 4, before later being found and brought back to the center.
A spokesperson for the CDC told Fox News that facilities run by agencies like the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) are more suitable for children than CBP locations.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities are currently housing increasing numbers of individuals, including children, and this is contributing to increased risk for COVID-19 outbreaks in these congregate settings.
“Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities are currently housing increasing numbers of individuals, including children, and this is contributing to increased risk for COVID-19 outbreaks in these congregate settings,” a CDC spokesperson told Fox News. “To reduce the risk of an outbreak, CDC has recommended additional mitigation precautions in these ORR facilities as they increase capacity, including testing, masking, and isolation and quarantine space for individuals with COVID-19.”
“Although these measures will not completely eliminate risk given the nature of COVID-19, particularly in congregate settings,” the spokesperson added, “CDC believes the risk of an outbreak at an ORR facility that has instituted stricter mitigation measures and is operating at fully capacity is lower than that at a densely packed CBP facility with little to no mitigation measures.”
The testing before children are brought to HHS facilities is also not necessarily a fail-safe — the coronavirus can take days to incubate before it is detectable, so it is possible that children could catch the virus at a CBP facility then spread it at an HHS facility.
An HHS spokesperson said last week that the positivity rate was “anticipated” and that precautions are being taken.
“Site staff are COVID-19 vaccinated, thoroughly trained on CDC protocols for donning and doffing PPE, and required to wear fit-tested masks and other CDC-recommended PPE at all times,” the spokesperson said.
Biden officials like Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have emphasized that it is their goal to have children in border patrol facilities for as short a time as possible. President Biden himself last week said “no child, no one should be in [CBP facilities[ any longer than 72 hours.” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, however, said on CBS‘ “Face The Nation” Sunday that at times children are being held by CBP for more than 72 hours.
Further, an administration official said Friday that children are being tested every three days at the secondary facilities they are taken to after being removed from CBP locations for surveillance purposes.
During the Trump administration, overcrowded border facilities with children were the source of major outrage. Cuellar’s said that what is happening on the border now is still a major crisis.
“More has to be done to address this growing humanitarian crisis,” he tweeted last week. “These migrant children need our help right now. Not later.”
“These scenes are heartbreaking of course,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning. “You have young moms and dads with small children sitting under a bridge in the middle of the night waiting to be processed. Inside some of these facilities you have small children without even parents there who are sleeping right next to each other in large, you might even call them cages.”
All unaccompanied minors encountered by law enforcement on the southern border are required to be taken in by the government, although Biden officials have said efforts are being made to reunite them with their parents in other countries.
Meanwhile, the large majority of individual adults are being expelled from the country when they are encountered by law enforcement.
But in a shift, most family units encountered during February were allowed to stay in the U.S. pending a decision on whether they would be forced to leave. This was contrary to January, when the majority were expelled from the U.S. under a Trump-era health order known as Title 42, which is meant to eek people who may pose a coronavirus health risk out of the country.
Fox News’ Brittany De Lea, Kristina Biddle and Houston Keene contributed to this report.