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Texas migrant flights brought flu outbreak to San Diego shelter: county officials

Migrants line up for processing at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in McAllen, Texas, in June 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/TNS)

San Diego’s migrant shelter is experiencing a flu outbreak after receiving asylum-seeking families who were flown to local Border Patrol stations from Texas for processing, county officials said.

The shelter’s medical team confirmed three cases of influenza on Monday, according to Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the county’s deputy public health officer. In a shelter setting, as in long-term care or nursing facilities, Sindelinger said, an outbreak is when at least two cases appear within 72 hours.

“I want to stress we are taking all appropriate steps that we can to contain this outbreak at this facility and to protect the public’s health in San Diego,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter opened after Immigration and Customs Enforcement ended a program that helped migrant families connect with loved ones in the U.S. before being released. The collective of nonprofits, funded by the state, now does the work of making calls to those who have offered to sponsor arriving asylum seekers to get bus or plane tickets for the migrants to move on to their final destinations elsewhere in the U.S.

To date, it has helped more than 14,000 people, according to the network.

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Border Patrol, citing overcrowding in processing facilities, began sending migrant families from the Rio Grande Valley to San Diego for processing at its stations last Friday. Over the weekend, some of those families were released to San Diego’s shelter along with the families who had come to the border locally to request asylum.

The San Diego area is scheduled to receive three flights per week with 120 to 135 people per flight indefinitely, according to Border Patrol. The shelter estimated that about 400 people who crossed the border in Texas have come through its doors so far.

Border Patrol temporarily stopped sending new arrivals to a large Texas holding facility this week after a flu outbreak there. A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was found dead in a Texas Border Patrol station Monday after being diagnosed with the flu and held in isolation.

Sidelinger said given the timing of when those who came to San Diego began to show symptoms, they likely contracted the virus while still in Texas. It generally takes about seven days for people to show symptoms, he said, and they become contagious the day before they have symptoms.

A spokesman for Border Patrol did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

In its months of operation, the San Diego shelter has seen sporadic cases of flu and chicken pox, but the Texas arrivals brought in an uptick that led to the outbreak designation, Sidelinger said.

Those coming from Texas were likely held in large facilities that increase the chances that contagious diseases will spread, Sidelinger said. Other than that, the only other difference medical staff noticed between the two groups was that those coming from Texas seemed more tired.

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When more flu cases appeared Tuesday at the downtown San Diego shelter, its medical team realized it would need to act quickly to keep the outbreak contained, Sidelinger said.

Normally, medical staff performs tests to confirm a person with flu symptoms has influenza and then begins treatment. That treatment is most effective if begun in the first two days of symptoms, Sidelinger said, but under the outbreak protocol, officials will treat everyone regardless of how long each has had symptoms.

Now, anyone who shows signs of the flu will be isolated and treated, Sidelinger said. So far, 16 people, the majority of them children, have been identified with flu-like symptoms, Sidelinger said, though not all have had the test to confirm the virus.

None have been hospitalized, Sidelinger said.

On Thursday, the shelter began administering preventative treatment to everyone staying there, and starting Friday, all new arrivals will also receive preventative care.

Those who are isolated are taken with their families to nearby hotels where officials have confirmed that the rooms have their own air and heating units to keep the virus from spreading to others, Sidelinger said.

County supervisors on both sides of the aisle used Thursday’s announcement of what Jacob called an “unfolding health situation” to push the federal government to do more for arriving migrants.

“It is the federal government that has failed to assume their responsibility for these migrants that are coming into San Diego County,” said Jacob, a Republican.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the lone Democrat on the board, said the Trump administration’s decision to end ICE’s program, known as Safe Release, “has created a very difficult situation for us here locally.”

“In the past, the same number of immigrants were processed smoothly via the Safe Release program,” Fletcher said.

San Diego County sued the federal government over the issue in April.

The county has spent about $2 million so far in costs related to the shelter, Jacob said, mostly on providing health screenings and care to the new arrivals.

“That number is growing each day,” Jacob said.

Fletcher added that the county expects to recoup that money from state funding.

He said that the shelter and its health protocols have allowed the county to address an issue that might have otherwise been “disastrous” given the end of Safe Release.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.