FAQ: What You Need to Know About COVID Vaccines in Immigrant Detention Centers

A confusing rollout has left many immigrants detained by ICE relying on local governments to get a COVID vaccine.

Immigrants held in detention centers have been among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Over 28,660 immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in local jails and private detention centers have tested positive for COVID as of October 5, and nine have died from the virus while detained. 

Detention centers have become hotspots for coronavirus even as the greater public sees declines in COVID rates. Factors like the inability to social distance, poor access to healthcare and things like hand sanitizer and masks, along with the underlying chronic health conditions that many detained immigrants suffer from have made detention centers particularly dangerous.

The Vera Institute of Justice found that, on average, a person in ICE detention tested positive for COVID-19 every 51 minutes from March 2020 to March 2021. One facility in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas logged 44 active COVID-19 cases between May 13 and 23, 2021 — about 75 percent of the total average daily population at the detention center, Borderless Magazine found in an investigation on ICE COVID-19 data.

Despite the clear dangers of coronavirus, the rollout of the COVID vaccine in immigrant detention facilities has been confusing for detained immigrants and their families. While ICE publishes data on COVID-19 cases at its facilities on its website, it does not publish any data on vaccination rates among detained people. 

ICE told Borderless Magazine that the agency had administered over 20,000 vaccines to facilities nationwide as of August 8. The agency has not responded to multiple requests for more recent data. But this number does not include the many vaccines that local jails holding immigrants in ICE detention have administered nor any vaccines administered to immigrants held at U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. It is unclear what percentage of the over 22,000 immigrants currently detained by ICE are fully vaccinated.

“ICE remains committed to applying CDC guidance and providing vaccine education that ensures those in our care and custody can make an informed choice during this global pandemic,” ICE Executive Associate Director Corey Price told Borderless Magazine in a statement.

To find out more about vaccinations in immigrant detention centers, Borderless Magazine spoke with legal experts and local jails contracted by ICE to hold immigrants in the Midwest. 

Are you or a loved one a detained immigrant? Do you have questions about the COVID vaccine and how to get it while detained? Reach out to our engagement reporter Diane at diane@borderlessmag.org, and we’ll try to answer your questions.  

What is the COVID-19 vaccine? 

COVID-19 vaccines were developed to combat the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak that first appeared in late 2019. If contracted, the contagious virus predominantly affects the respiratory system, but it can affect other organs. COVID-19 can cause mild to severe symptoms that typically appear 2 to 14 days after exposure. Symptoms can include: 

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • muscle and body aches
  • headache
  • new loss of taste or smell
  • sore throat
  • congestion or runny nose
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

In mid-December 2020, the U.S. administered the first shots of the COVID-19 vaccine and began offering the vaccines to healthcare providers. Now anyone 12 years of age and older is eligible to receive the vaccine. 

What vaccines are available to people in detention centers?

There are three vaccines available in the United States to prevent COVID-19. The CDC says that all three COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and have been proven to reduce the risk of severe illness. 

  • The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is available to people 12 years and older. It requires two injections given three weeks apart. On August 23, the Pfizer vaccine became the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • The Moderna vaccine is available to people 18 years and older. It requires two injections given four weeks apart. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Moderna vaccine on December 18, 2020.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine is available to people 18 years and older. It requires only one injection. The vaccine received an EUA from the FDA on February 27, 2021.

While many prisons and jails have opted to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for their incarcerated populations who may be released or transferred before the time they would receive their second vaccine dose, ICE has not made such a decision.

Instead, the type of COVID vaccine detained immigrants can receive depends largely on what’s available locally. Guadalupe Perez is a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center and works with detained immigrants from six Midwest detention centers: Dodge Detention Facility; McHenry County Jail; Jerome Combs Detention Center; Pulaski County Detention Center; Kay County Detention Center and the Boone County Jail. 

According to Perez, people at these centers generally cannot choose which vaccine they receive. This is because vaccine availability in detention centers is dependent on which vaccine the local health department delivers to the facility. Availability also depends on which medical treatment company ICE contracts with to administer the vaccine. 

For example, the McHenry County Jail detention facility receives vaccine allotments from the McHenry County Health Department upon request. The facility has provided both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to its incarcerated populations, depending on which brand is available that day. 

How do COVID-19 vaccines work?

According to the CDC, vaccines help our bodies build immunity to COVID-19 by teaching the immune system how to combat the virus. 

Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, teach our cells how to make a specific protein — known as a “spike protein” — that triggers an immune response for the body to produce antibodies and fight against the virus if encountered. Viral vector vaccines, such as the Johnson & Johnson, use a modified version of a different, harmless virus, to produce these spike proteins. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, you cannot become infected with COVID-19 or infect others from receiving the vaccine because these vaccines do not contain the live virus itself. 

Because it can take the body weeks to produce these cells after receiving the vaccine, it is possible for someone to contract COVID-19 just before or after getting vaccinated. Because of this, the CDC considers a person “fully vaccinated” two weeks after receiving their final dose. For Moderna and Pfizer vaccine recipients, that is after the second dose, whereas the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one injection.

The CDC recommends that people who have had COVID-19 in the past still get the vaccine, because it’s unknown how long those antibodies protect the body from a repeat infection. Currently the CDC says those who previously had COVID-19 must wait until they have recovered from their illness and are no longer in isolation to receive a vaccine.

Vaccines continue to be effective in reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but data suggests that the duration of that protection may diminish over time. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have therefore concluded that vaccinated people may need booster shots to “maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.” 

Can I get the vaccine if I am undocumented? 

Yes. According to the Illinois Department of Health, all populations in Illinois are eligible to receive the vaccine, regardless of immigration status. 

How do I sign up to get vaccinated if I’m in a detention facility?

That depends a lot on the facility you are being held in, experts told Borderless Magazine. There is no national system for people in immigrant detention centers to sign up for or receive a vaccine. 

If someone is unsure how to sign up for a vaccine, Perez recommends submitting a medical request at their detention center asking to receive a vaccine. What type of vaccine a facility has and how many doses depends largely on their location and how that facility coordinates with their local health department. 

“That’s the biggest issue with vaccination for folks in immigration detention — there’s no system for consistently delivering vaccines to a population that’s constantly in flux,” Perez said. 

At the McHenry County Jail, detained people are offered the vaccine upon intake and receive educational pamphlets from the jail’s medical staff and local health department, jail officials say. They can also request the vaccine at any time by notifying a corrections officer or putting in a medical kiosk request. Once a person at McHenry has received a dose of the vaccine, they will receive a vaccination card recording what vaccine and dosage they received. However, immigration attorneys have told Borderless Magazine that there have been instances in which their clients did not receive a vaccination card and had to request one after leaving the detention center. 

vaccine record card
Photo by Jernej Furman on flickr

Will I feel any symptoms after getting vaccinated? 

Feeling mild symptoms after getting a COVID-19 vaccine is normal — it means the body is building protection, according to the CDC.

Common side effects can include soreness, redness or swelling on the arm that received the shot. Over the next few days, some might also experience flu-like symptoms such as tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever or nausea. 

Serious adverse side effects, however, remain extremely uncommon for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

If I feel sick after getting vaccinated, what medical attention is available to me to treat symptoms? 

Detention facilities should have their own policies on how to request medical attention for those experiencing symptoms. For example, at the McHenry County Jail, if someone wanted to seek medical attention for symptoms from the vaccine, they would need to notify a corrections officer or put in a medical kiosk request. 

To alleviate tenderness in the arm that received the injection, the CDC suggests applying a clean, cool, wet washcloth over the area or exercising the arm. To reduce a fever, the CDC recommends drinking plenty of liquids and dressing in cool, light clothing. 

To relieve any other discomfort after getting the vaccine, the CDC recommends talking to a health care provider for over-the-counter medicines and pain relievers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin or antihistamines. However, the CDC does not recommend taking these medicines or any others prior to getting the vaccine shot. 

If tenderness or redness in the arm that received the injection does not get better, or other worrying side effects persist days after receiving the vaccine, the CDC recommends talking to a doctor or health care provider. 

While those in immigration detention are able to request medical attention, Perez said issues such as delays or language barriers may pose a challenge for people seeking additional medical attention. Perez said she has heard of facilities taking anywhere from days to weeks to provide medical attention after an immigrant requests it.

“The pandemic highlighted the inconsistency of medical attention to folks that are detained by immigration,” Perez said. 

What is the Delta variant? Am I still at risk if I’ve been vaccinated? 

In late July 2021, the CDC reported an increase in cases for the Delta variant, a different strain of COVID-19. Data suggests that the Delta variant is a more contagious strain of COVID-19. 

According to the CDC, unvaccinated people are the most at-risk to the Delta variant with regard to severe illness and hospitalizations. 

Vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe disease and death for COVID-19. Although some vaccinated people may become infected (called a breakthrough infection) and experience illness, many of those cases are not as severe. 

I was released from detention without receiving a second dose of the vaccine. How do I get a second dose? 

Individuals who have recently been released from immigration detention can receive their second dose at a number of vaccination sites. COVID-19 vaccines are not interchangeable, so you should get the same brand of vaccine as their first dosage (i.e. Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson). 

Here’s some ways to find a vaccine provider near you: 

  • Visit www.vaccines.gov 
  • Text your ZIP code to 438829 
  • Call 1-800-232-0233 
  • Contact your state health department. In Illinois, call 833-621-1284 to schedule an appointment near you

All three of the available COVID-19 vaccines are free for the public to receive. 

Want to get this story to your loved one in detention? Click here to print out the story and mail it to them. 

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