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Asylum-seekers offered COVID shots, but Pima County won't mandate vax

Coronavirus infection rates much lower among migrants at Casa Alitas than for Tucson-area residents

Pima County has given COVID-19 vaccinations to 283 asylum seekers thus far in September, and the overall rate of positive cases this month among migrant families seeking protection is only about one-third of the county's overall rate.

The county's vaccination program for people who've been released here by federal immigration authorities while pursuing their asylum claims was highlighted during a contentious part of Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisor Steve Christy failed to convince the board to make vaccinations mandatory for all asylum seekers, with his motion dying for a lack of a second.

Republicans across the country have made unfounded attempts to blame COVID outbreaks on migrants, despite them generally having higher vaccination rates and lower rates of coronavirus infections than U.S. residents.

Data from the county showed that in September, 1,746 people were taken in by Casa Alitas, a county-supported shelter managed by Catholic Community Services. Of those, officials tested 1,557 for COVID-19, and there were 41 positive cases. This means the positivity rate for migrants tested at the shelter is about 2.63 percent—far below the rate for Pima County residents, hovers around 7 percent and has at times topped 10 percent this year, according to the CDC.

Even among migrants held at facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, of the 22,442 people currently in detention nationwide, there are currently 546 COVID-19 cases—a positivity rate of around 2 percent—according to agency statistics

While only 283 people out of more than 1,700 received a COVID-19 vaccine at Casa Alitas this month, county officials said that this was driven by large numbers of children under 12, who are unable to receive the vaccine, and that some asylum seekers have already been inoculated against the disease by authorities in northern Mexico. In fact, Mexican officials in Sonora said in September that nearly 83 percent of eligible adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

During the supervisors' meeting, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, outlined the local efforts, noting that more than 75 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated in Pima County — people age 12 and over — have gotten their shots.

However, Supervisor Matt Heinz threw cold water on the idea that the county had hit a vaccination rate of 75 percent, calling the number "grossly misleading."

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"Unless that's changed five-year-olds are allowed to move freely and also breathe," he said. "So it doesn't make sense to talk about 18-year-olds and up, or 12-year-olds and up. Though I understand why the administration would want to make the numbers look a bit prettier than they actually are, we are still 13 percent away from the absolute minimum threshold that we should be at," said Heinz, a medical doctor who works in a local hospital.

Christy, the lone Republican on the board, began by asking why the county does not include the number of people who have endured a COVID-19 infection among the statistics for "herd immunity."

"Why isn't natural immunity being considered with all the Pima County data presented?" Christy asked.

Garcia said that 130,000 people had received a "natural vaccine" because they experienced COVID-19, or a "wild type exposure." However, health officials don't actually have a good way of knowing how long someone is immune to a virus after their infection, Garcia said. "This is not unique to coronavirus, by the way."

"However, vaccination acts as a booster. Because quite honestly, we don't know how long that natural immunity lasts." Garcia said, adding that after an infection, the body's immune response begins to taper off.

"The truth is that today we do not have a good way of being able to differentiate those naturally immune individuals," he said. "So we have to be consistent with the science as it exists today."

Christy then shifted, arguing that because the Biden administration sought to state and large employers to be vaccinated, the county should also mandate vaccinations for asylum seekers: "For the record, Dr. Garcia is of your opinion that unvaccinated asylum seekers are presenting a community spread health risk and Pima County?"

Garcia said that mandatory vaccines were "in general, a challenge to enforce..."

Republican politicians across the country have attempted, despite the data, to blame the severe spikes in COVID cases in places such as Florida and Texas on unvaccinated migrants, rather than U.S. residents who haven't gotten their shots.

Christy immediately interrupted. "Now, we have a, we're having these executive orders from the Biden ministration mandating that their employees be vaccinated. Why is it not such a challenge for those communities to be mandatorily vaccinated. Folks that are coming through the asylum process?"

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Pima County Chair Sharon Bronson asked Christy to submit a motion, which he did. While Heinz has been supportive of vaccine requirements for health care workers and county employees, he demurred, leaving the motion to die without a second. Bronson then moved on.

'Everyone needs to be vaccinated'

Garcia said he was caught off guard by Christy's questions.

"Everyone needs to be vaccinated," Garcia said during an interview with TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday. "Everyone who walks into Pima County, whether that's students, people working, asylum seekers, what have you. The best and safest thing to do is have everyone be vaccinated."

"But the issue becomes, how can you achieve that?" Garcia asked. "We don't as a county government have the ability to mandate vaccinations, except in a narrow way for people who work for county government."

And, he said state legislators and Gov. Doug Ducey have complicated this effort with laws and executive orders that limit local governments from mandating masks and requiring vaccines.

In late June, the GOP-controlled Legislature tucked three bills into a last-minute, must-pass budget reconciliation package that was quickly signed into law by Ducey. One bill, HB2 898, prohibits "prohibits counties, cities, towns, schools, and school districts from requiring students or staff to wear a face-covering during school hours and on school property," and blocks vaccination requirements.

While the legislation made the bills retroactive, a Maricopa County Superior Court Judge ruled that the laws weren't in force until 90 days after the end of the legislative session—June 29. Meanwhile, another Maricopa County judge is considering a challenge to the bills, and is likely to rule soon on whether the laws pass constitutional muster.

Based on the governor's arguments, Garcia said, the county has "no role to enforce mandates for vaccines for any population."

"Nor do schools, well public schools, nor the city or other government entities," he said. "The bottom line is we need to do whatever it takes to vaccinate as many as possible—I don't care where they're from, or why they're here."

"But, we don't have a magic wand that automatically gives us the legal authority to mandate vaccines, at least without the board's approval," Garcia said. "We've been beating a drum, the feds have a responsibility, and part of their responsibility needs to be around COVID mitigation. But, we're not there, yet. And, so when folks come here, we've stood up the capacity to test everyone."

"We believe that county does have an affirmative responsibility to make sure we know who's infected, and provide housing and medial care for that small subset that are positive. Then, we try to get them to their final destination," he said.

To do this, the county has relied on a network of hotels to isolate people infected with COVID, and quarantine people who might be infected. The county tests "aggressively" he said, when someone might have been infected with COVID, and if people test negative, they're allowed to travel.

He said that most people are "passing through," and it's in "our best interests to make sure they're healthy when they here."

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik called Christy "hypocritical," and said that he should support vaccinations across the county level if he's concerned about COVID-19 infections.

"The overarching concern from the Steve Christy's of the world about COVID-19 is we need to address where people are staying south of the border," he said. "The lack of serious concern from the federal government and people like him on vaccinations shows when they aren't concerned about people staying in congregational settings for weeks at a time, in unsanitary conditions, where they can get COVID. You can't leave people in these conditions, and then act shocked when they have a higher rate of infections.

"The bottom line is they're still human beings, that have legitimate asylum claims," said Kozachik, who's been an organizer of relieve efforts for asylum seekers. He added that vaccinations are "offered" to anyone who goes through Casa Alitas, when it makes sense.

'Bottom line, everybody in this county should be vaccinated... We don't have unfettered ability to make people fall on syringes' — Garcia

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The future remains concerning, he said, because typically there's a drop-off in the number of people who pass through Casa Alitas, but that the trend has been high throughout the summer.

"The concern is as we get into winter months, the numbers typically increase, and if that holds true to form, we start with a higher baseline," Kozachik said.

Garcia observed that most migrants who take respite at the shelter are relatively healthy.

"You know, it's a testament to the human spirit that the vast majority are well, despite all the trauma they've endured," Garcia said.

"Bottom line, everybody in this county should be vaccinated. I don't care who they are, where they from, or what brings them to this county. And, we're going to do whatever it takes to make that vaccination opportunity happens," Garcia said. “We will do what we can. As an employer, we can be more muscular in our requirements for employees, but at the end of the day, we’re limited. We will use every tool in our toolbox to make that happen. We don't have unfettered ability to make people fall on syringes, that's just not the world we live in."

Feds release asylum seekers in Arizona

Earlier this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began releasing people making asylum claims directly to small towns in Southern Arizona — including Ajo and Apache Junction — but after officials and the public cried foul the agency returned to releasing people to shelters in Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma—including Casa Alitas.

The people transferred to Casa Alitas are a small part of the thousands encountered by Tucson Sector agents this fiscal year. Since October, agents in this part of Arizona have encountered people 173,476 times — and nearly 84 percent were single adults who were immediately expelled by agents under a Trump-era CDC order that allows officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. if they had traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

Agents also encountered nearly 16,860 children traveling without parents or guardians, and 11,096 people traveling as families.

Since January, 13,084 people have passed through Casa Alitas, many of them people who've made "credible fear" claims about likely persecution in their home countries and are claiming asylum here. In January, just 47 people arrived at the shelter, and in August, the number of people peaked with 2,512, according to data from Pima County.

During the summer, the director of the county's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security said that the shelter received about 615 people in a week, or roughly 90 people per day. In 2019, during a significant influx of Central American families seeking asylum under the Trump administration, Casa Alitas processed over 350 people per day, including nearly 1,000 people over the Easter holiday weekend that year.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A family at the Kino Border Initiative on July 28 in Nogales, Sonora.


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