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ICE urged to release detainees at heightened risk for coronavirus

Disease could be ‘death threat’ to anyone with compromised immune system

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River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on Feb. 1, 2020. The privately-run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center is roughly 10 miles west of Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Several LGBTQ advocacy groups on Tuesday called for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release all detainees in its custody and to close all of its detention centers because of coronavirus.

“People in ICE custody are vulnerable to getting COVID-19 given the close proximity of detained people to each other,” reads a press release the Transgender Law Center, the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement issued. “ICE officers, guards and other staff are also likely to transmit the virus.”

“Worldwide, epidemiologists are advising social distancing as a way to mitigate the spread of the novel COVID-19,” say the groups. “Prisons, jails and detention centers cannot accommodate this advice. Solitary confinement further impedes access to necessary medical care. Given ICE’s history of inadequate treatment and the recent deaths of eight immigrants in ICE custody in the last five months, it is clear that ICE is not ready nor equipped to handle a COVID-19 outbreak in any of its facilities.” 

Immigration Equality Executive Director Aaron Morris on Tuesday told the Los Angeles Blade during a telephone interview that ICE should release detainees with HIV/AIDS on parole because of the threat of coronavirus.

“Any communicable disease that is introduced into a detention facility spreads way faster than in the general population,” said Morris. “People are sandwiched in there. They are over-populated. They have no privacy and that is just a recipe for disaster.”

“This is a population for whom ICE has and corporate facilities have regularly struggled to provide appropriate care in the best of times,” he added, referring to ICE detainees with HIV/AIDS.

Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV, was in ICE custody in New Mexico when she died on May 25, 2018. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans Salvadoran woman who was also living with HIV, died at a Texas hospital on June 1, 2019, three days after ICE released her from its custody.

Roxsana Hernández, a transgender woman with HIV, died in a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A group of more than two dozen trans women who were in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run detention center in Milan, N.M., in a letter they sent to Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, last summer noted detainees with HIV did not receive “adequate” medical attention. Hernández was in ICE custody at the detention center before her death.

The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator concluded Hernández died from Castleman disease associated with AIDS.

The Transgender Law Center, which represents Hernández’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit, commissioned a second autopsy that found the cause of death “most probably severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection, with the probable presence of one or more opportunistic infections.” The second autopsy also found “evidence of physical abuse” that included bruises around her rib cage.

Arianna Lint, chief executive officer of Arianna’s Center, a South Florida organization that serves trans women, on Tuesday said ICE should also release trans women with HIV as a way to protect them from coronavirus.

“We are at the most risk,” Lint told the Blade during a telephone interview.

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson is a member of the Natchez Network Immigrant Support, a group of volunteers in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana who support ICE detainees and their families through visitation, post-release assistance and a variety of other programs.

Grant-Gibson visited Yariel Valdés González — a Blade contributor who was in ICE custody for nearly a year — at the privately-run River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., days before his March 4 release. Grant-Gibson on Tuesday said ICE should release people with HIV/AIDS and others who are at increased risk for coronavirus.

“It will be the guards who bring it in,” Grant-Gibson told the Blade. “Once in, it will be a problem.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project on Monday filed a federal lawsuit that calls for ICE to release its detainees who are at high-risk for coronavirus. The groups represent a group of immigrants who are in ICE custody at the privately-run Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash.

The ACLU of Louisiana on March 12 called for ICE to release all asylum seekers and refugees in its custody in Louisiana after officials confirmed the first coronavirus case in the state. A press release notes Louisiana “now holds the second highest number of immigrant detainees in the U.S., many of whom are being held in private prisons in remote locations and have been denied an opportunity to be granted humanitarian parole.” 

“This public health crisis also poses a significant risk to thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who are being warehoused in brutal conditions across Louisiana,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert. “Seeking asylum is a legal right, and federal and state officials have an obligation to protect the health of people fleeing violence and persecution to seek refuge in this country.”

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in a letter he sent to Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence on March 13 wrote ICE “should consider alternatives to detention for those who pose no threat to public safety or national security, particularly those who are at a heightened risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19, such as the elderly and individuals with heart or lung conditions, diabetes, or compromised immune systems.”  

“ICE should also take steps to ensure that such individuals are not detained until the spread of the virus has sufficiently subsided,” added Nadler.

No confirmed coronavirus cases in ICE detention centers

ICE on its website says as of Tuesday there are no confirmed coronavirus cases at any of its detention facilities. ICE has also suspended visitation at all of its detention facilities.

“Law enforcement agencies across the country, to include ICE, are paying close attention to this pandemic,” an ICE spokesperson told the Blade on Tuesday.

“The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” added the spokesperson. “Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”

The spokesperson said ICE “continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency.”

“In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus,” added the spokesperson.

The spokesperson did not specifically say whether ICE has access to coronavirus tests in case a detainee or staff member shows symptoms of the disease. The spokesperson did, however, note ICE “does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances.”

“ICE policy directs our officers to avoid making arrests at sensitive locations — to include schools, places of worship, and health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities — without prior approval for an exemption, or in exigent circumstances,” the spokesperson told the Blade.

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Michigan

Michigan teacher walks off job & resigns after told to remove Pride flag

“To me, the flag represents love and inclusion for everybody, not just whoever is of the LGBTQIA+ community”

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Three Rivers Community Schools administrative offices (Photo Credit: TRCS Facebook)

THREE RIVERS, Mi. – A middle school health teacher walked off the job Nov. 22, then resigned after the school district’s administration ordered LGBTQ+ Pride flags removed from classrooms.

Russell Ball, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, told local media outlets that “The rumors kind of floating around is that one or two parents that complained about the flags being in the classroom.” 

“To me, the flag represents love and inclusion for everybody, not just whoever is of the LGBTQIA+ community,” Ball said during an interview last week with NBC News affiliate WOOD TV 8 on Grand Rapids. “I felt very disheartened and saddened. The students losing that representation throughout the classrooms really hurt, losing my own representation in the classroom really hurt. It was just something I was not prepared to do.”

He told NBC 8 that, combined with burnout, caused him to resign from his position as a health teacher.

“It all comes down to having some open communication and building understanding that we’re not out to vilify anybody, but we are here and we do exist,” he said.

In a statement posted on its website, the school district’s Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash said officials were notified by what he referred to as an “an external party,” Nov. 18. According to Nash, the person questioned information shared within the school day, which also included an inquiry of the Gay Straight Alliance after-school club and pride flags within Three Rivers Middle School classrooms.

“We continue to work with the district’s legal firm and board of education to ensure we are providing a safe learning environment for all students,” the statement continued. “There is a board meeting on December 6th.”

Attorneys representing the district did not reply Tuesday to multiple requests for comment.

Comments on the school district’s Facebook page reflected anger over its decision, with one person writing; “It is disappointing Three Rivers Community Schools has decided to kick protections and support for LGBTQ+ students to the curb for some undisclosed reason. The district claims protection for all students but somehow figured LGBTQ+ students don’t fit in that category for all students and are now willing to show the students and their support network of teachers to the door.”

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Virginia

Virginia Tech Co. burns LGBTQ poster at company party- then apologizes

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC

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Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC

ASHBURN, Va. – The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

A customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds, made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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The White House

New virus variant stokes global alarms, flights banned from South Africa

The variant is classified as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the Delta variant

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:President Joe Biden (Blade file photo)

NANTUCKETT, Ma. – The World Health Organization declared a new variant of the mutated coronavirus it named Omicron as a variant of concern Friday. The variant is classified as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the Delta variant, the world’s most prevalent.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said in a statement Friday afternoon.

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, [has shown] this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO noted.

The Omicron variant has already caused countries across Europe and Asia to implement travel restrictions.

President Joe Biden, spending the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend with his family on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts off Cape Cod, on Friday issued a directive ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29.

Bloomberg reported that one of Biden’s top medical advisers said earlier Friday that officials would act after reviewing scientific data with counterparts in South Africa.

American health officials spoke with their South African counterparts midday New York time on Friday to gather medical and scientific data about the newly discovered variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top health advisers, said they’d use that data in deciding whether to join the European Union, the U.K. and others in restricting travel.

The White House issued the President’s statement Friday afternoon:

“This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises. 

For now, I have two important messages for the American people, and one for the world community.

First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness – fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults — the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible.  Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast.  They are safe, free, and convenient.  Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season.

Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today.  This includes both children and adults.  America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.

Finally, for the world community: the news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations. The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.   

In addition, I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally.  I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly.”

Dr. Fauci Warns Americans To Take New Omicron Variant Seriously

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