Biden admin makes history: First ever to offer illegal immigrants detained by CBP flu vaccine

Migrants detained at the southern border are being offered another perk for breaking the law. For the first time in U.S. history, Customs and Border Protection is offering illegal border crossers flu vaccines.

Since the program began on September 28, CBP has vaccinated 24,000 unauthorized migrants and asylum-seekers, a measure public health officials have long requested.

It has been the feeling of Republican and Democratic administrations that vaccinating migrants during their 72-hour hold in CBP custody was unfeasible and cost-prohibitive but public health experts argued that detainees are often held for significantly longer periods in overcrowded facilities, facilitating the spread of influenza.

The debate took on renewed vigor following the death of three migrant children during former President Donald Trump’s administration. Guatemalan 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died in CBP custody in New Mexico, tested positive for Influenza B during autopsy and became the poster child for the debate. While the boy’s father reportedly declined medical treatment, many blamed the longstanding policy against vaccines for the child’s death.

In 2019, doctors marched on San Diego Border Patrol facilities, demanding they be allowed to vaccinate children in custody.

President Joe Biden’s administration is the first to cave to demands to provide illegal border crossers flu vaccines, claiming to vaccinate nearly 1,000 detainees will save money in the long run.

“For us, this was just a logistical challenge. But the public health and clinical rationale was evident from day one,” said Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, chief medical officer at the Department for Homeland Security.

“We are reducing the burden on local hospitals and communities,” Gandhi said. “We are ensuring that interior American communities stay safe and healthy. And we are ensuring that noncitizens who enter the United States are also safe and healthy and protected from the flu.”

Vaccinations in CBP custody are becoming more and more common under Biden’s administration. Since March, CBP has administered more than 173,000 COVID-19 vaccines to adults and children not processed under Title 42, a policy that allows border agents to expel migrants without an asylum interview.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which houses long-term detainees, began vaccinating migrants against COVID-19 last year, but have vaccinated against the flu for years.

“As of Oct. 2, HHS had vaccinated 96,004 migrant children against COVID-19, including 40,962 unaccompanied minors who received two doses, agency data show,” CBS News reported. “Meanwhile, 66,580 immigrant adults had elected to receive COVID-19 vaccinations while in ICE custody as of Sept. 30.”

Public health experts praised CBP’s decision to offer flu shots to those in its custody, claiming it will reduce the risk of migrants getting ill and spreading the disease “downriver.”

“These are not theoretical risks. There are children who died from flu whose lives might have been saved if the environment had less flu in it,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and a former principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “There will be people who are particularly susceptible. People with cancer migrate. People with immune deficiencies migrate.”

Because CBP detains migrants in congregate settings there is a higher risk for influenza transmission, and “there’s an extra responsibility to protect them,” he said.


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