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County health chief: Migrant kids face greater health risk than public

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The unaccompanied minors staying in Tucson continue to pose a "very low health risk to county residents," according to statement sent out by the Pima County Health Department.

Dr. Francisco Garcia reiterated this opinion in a memo on Friday, echoing a previous report released last week that the children sheltered or in transit through Pima County "do not constitute a public health threat to this community."

After assessing the medical screening process in place and noting the minimal interaction between the children and the public, Garcia dismissed concerns that the thousands of unaccompanied minors were a health threat. Instead, he wrote that the health of the children at the end of a long and perilous journey was a concern.

'The risk is really to these children and not our larger community," wrote Garcia.

Garcia sent out the memo to address national media reports that federal officials were dealing with a breakdown in the screening system and children who stayed in the Border Patrol station in Nogales were connected to a cluster of pneumonia cases at a California naval base.

Public health officials detected the illness and are actively treating the children, Garcia said.

According to the memo, the Arizona Department of Health Services told Garcia that a team from the Centers for Disease Control was dispatched to Nogales to review the screening. While the investigators' findings have not yet been released, the CDC's assessment "continues to be one of low risk," said Garcia.

The federal incident commander said that officials did not have any "significant health concerns about the health and well-being of the children in custody" in Nogales, Garcia wrote.

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"The cases were detected through the systematic surveillance process that was developed by the CDC, and which is designed to quickly respond to potential health threats," said Garcia.

Garcia said that the children are flown on chartered aircraft operated by the Department of Defense after a three-day observation period at the Nogales station, where the children are evaluated by officials from Public Health Services. 

This includes a brief behavioral assessment, a pregnancy test, a test for tuberculosis, as well as a battery of vaccinations. 

Children who have 100-degree temperatures may not travel, Garcia said. Children who show symptoms or need medical care are taken to health care providers in Santa Cruz County, he said.

Almost 5,000 children have passed through the Nogales facility, Garcia said, with 273 are now staying in Tucson.

Rhetoric about the possibility of disease among the migrant Central American children has received national attention, fueling emotional demonstrations including last week's protest in Oracle where around 75 attempted to stop the rumored transport of around 60 unaccompanied minors to a shelter near the town.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Unaccompanied minors board a chartered airliner on the tarmac at Tucson International Airport on July 9, part of the federal effort to detain and process more than 52,000 children who have crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley this year.

“The risk is really to these children and not our larger community.”

— Dr. Francisco Garcia

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