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Virus Surges in U.S. Detention Centers Holding Migrants

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

As their populations swell nearly to prepandemic levels, U.S. immigration detention centers are reporting major surges in coronavirus infections among detainees.

Public health officials, noting that few detainees are vaccinated against the virus, warn that the increasingly crowded facilities can be fertile ground for outbreaks.

The number of migrants being held in the detention centers has nearly doubled in recent months as border apprehensions have risen, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. More than 26,000 people were in detention last week, compared with about 14,000 in April.

More than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in the centers over that same period, accounting for more than 40 percent of all cases reported in ICE facilities since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times analysis of ICE data.

Prisons and jails in America were hotbeds for the virus last year, with nearly one in three inmates at federal and state facilities testing positive. The virus infected and killed prisoners at a faster rate than it did in nearby populations because of crowding and other factors that made ideal conditions for Covid to spread.

As of May, according to ICE’s latest available data, only about 20 percent of detainees passing through the centers had received at least one dose of vaccine while in custody.

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who has inspected immigration detention centers during the pandemic, said that several factors were to blame for the surge, including transfers of detainees between facilities, insufficient testing and lax Covid-19 safety measures.

For example, he said, during a recent inspection at a center in Aurora, Colo., he saw many staff members who were not wearing face coverings properly, adding: “There is minimal to no accountability regarding their protocols.”

Paige Hughes, an ICE spokeswoman, said that all new detainees were tested for the coronavirus and are held in quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

“On-site medical professionals are credited with reducing the risk of further spreading the disease by immediately testing, identifying and isolating the exposed detainees to mitigate the spread of infection,” she said.

Even so, public health officials point out that detainees are transported to the facilities by bus before they are tested and may be exposed during the trip. Similar lapses by prison systems over the past year have led to mass infections and deaths.

ICE officials said the agency’s policy was to leave decisions about vaccinating detainees to state and local officials. Some of the worst outbreaks at ICE facilities, including one at the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., have been in states where vaccination rates are far below the national average, according to a Times database.

As concerns grow over the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that detainees would remain vulnerable to outbreaks until officials made vaccinations at these sites a higher priority.

“You have people coming in and out of the facility, into communities where incomplete vaccination allows these variants to flourish, and then you bring them inside the facilities, and that variant will spread,” Dr. Dolovich said. “What you’re describing is the combination of insufficient vaccination plus the evolution of the virus, and that is really scary.”

Pool photo by Olivier Matthys

Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg, who is suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, was in “serious but stable” condition on Monday at a hospital, the State Ministry in Luxembourg said. The prime minister had low oxygen levels in his blood, an acute concern for people with Covid-19.

Less than 10 days after a star turn at the European Union summit meeting in Brussels late last month, Mr. Bettel, 48, spent his second day in the hospital, where he was sent “as a precaution,” according to the ministry. Mr. Bettel is expected to spend two to four more days there under observation because of his persistent symptoms, the ministry said.

At the summit meeting, he gave an intensely personal account of realizing that he was gay and how hard it was to tell his parents. He spoke about it during a debate on Hungary’s new law on sex education, which critics say targets the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

“I didn’t get up one morning after having seen some advertising and just become gay,” Mr. Bettel said in Brussels. “That’s not how life works. It’s in me, I didn’t choose it. And to accept oneself is hard enough, so to be stigmatized too, that’s too much.”

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands described the scene after Mr. Bettel spoke: “Everybody had tears in their eyes.”

After Mr. Bettel attended the summit on June 24 and 25, he announced his positive test result and had mild symptoms. He had received a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in May and was to receive the second one July 1.

None of the other 26 leaders who attended the summit are showing Covid symptoms, the European Union said on Monday. Many photographs and videos from the summit show leaders, including Mr. Bettel, wearing masks.

Mr. Bettel became prime minister of Luxembourg, a constitutional monarchy whose chief of state is Grand Duke Henri, in December 2013.

About 35 percent of Luxembourg’s population of 640,000 is fully vaccinated. The government announced last week that it would start scheduling vaccinations for children ages 12 to 17, beginning with the oldest.

“Hope to see you soon in good health,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a tweet directed at Mr. Bettel on Monday. “In the meantime, rest and take good care of yourself.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to let individuals decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though the transportation authorities could still require them.
Henry Nicholls/Reuters

As Britain forges ahead with reopening its economy after 16 months of virus-driven restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a backlash over an issue that has vexed the country’s response to the pandemic from the start: whether to require people to wear face masks indoors.

In outlining his government’s plans to lift most remaining restrictions in England on July 19, Mr. Johnson said in a news conference Monday that he wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though the transportation authorities could still require them.

That drew fire from local officials and scientists, who said the government was putting more vulnerable people at risk and being overly casual at a time when the virus continues to course through the population. Britain reported 27,334 new cases on Monday and 178,128 over the last week, an increase of 53 percent over the previous week.

“Wearing a mask is not to protect yourself, it is to protect others, which is why it has to be a requirement on public transport,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government who has been an outspoken critic of its approach. “That is where I don’t think they understand the problem.”

Mr. Johnson said that thanks to Britain’s widespread deployment of vaccines, the link between cases and hospital admissions had been weakened, if not broken completely. Britain, he said, must find a way to live with Covid by allowing people to use their personal judgment to manage the risks.

While cases in Britain have risen steeply in recent weeks, hospitalizations are rising more slowly, and deaths more slowly still. But hospitalizations doubled in the last week, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the news conference, and admissions and deaths always lag behind case numbers. So there are lingering concerns among epidemiologists that those numbers, too, might begin to rise sharply in coming weeks.

Given how widespread the virus is, local officials and labor unions that represent transportation workers said that ending the requirement for mask wearing on public transportation would be an act of “gross negligence” on the part of the government.

A final decision will be made next week but, under the plans Mr. Johnson presented on Monday, rules requiring the wearing of masks in England would be lifted on July 19, with decisions left to individuals. Government guidance would suggest that people might do so in confined and crowded places. Travel companies and businesses would be permitted to set their own rules on masks.

Regardless, the planned relaxation would lift almost all legal Covid restrictions for England. That would allow nightclubs to reopen and remove curbs on numbers of people in theaters and cinemas and at live events. The rule limiting the numbers of those meeting inside homes to six people, or two households, would end, as would the requirement that pubs only serve people who are seated.

Customers would no longer be required to leave their contact information when entering pubs and restaurants, the current one-meter distancing rule would be scrapped and the government’s appeal to people to work from home would end. The gap between vaccination shots for those 40 and younger would be shortened to eight weeks from 12.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are working on separate, though similar, timelines to fully reopen.

At a vaccination site in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday. Israel will send about 700,000 expiring doses to South Korea.
Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Israel and South Korea have agreed to swap hundreds of thousands of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the coming months to meet their countries’ needs, Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said in a statement released Tuesday morning.

Under the deal, Israel will send about 700,000 expiring doses of the vaccine this month to South Korea, where cases of the virus are rising. South Korea will send the same amount to Israel in September and October, the statement said, describing the agreement as the first of its kind for the exchange of vaccines between Israel and another country.

Israel has had among the fastest vaccination programs in the world, fully inoculating 57 percent of its population so far, according to data from The New York Times. The deal with South Korea allows Israel to unload doses it doesn’t need immediately. It also will bolster Israel’s supply of vaccines for later in the year as officials grow increasingly concerned about the global spread of the Delta variant.

Mr. Bennett described it as “a win-win deal” that would “ensure that the State of Israel has a proper stock of vaccines.” He also thanked the chief executive of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, for helping to facilitate the deal.

The announcement came after the collapse of a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in June. The authority had rejected more than one million doses of the vaccine on the grounds that they were too close to their expiration date. At the time, Ibrahim Melhem, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said that the region would instead wait for a direct delivery of four million vaccine doses from Pfizer-BioNTech later in the year.

South Korea, which has fully vaccinated only 10 percent of its people, is trying to speed up its campaign. Average daily infections there have risen 42 percent over the past two weeks, according to New York Times data.

Sasikumar, 45, a car cleaner who lost his job during the lockdown, hanging a white flag outside his home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, on Monday.
Lim Huey Teng/Reuters

Signs of economic distress have begun appearing in neighborhoods across Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian cities: white flags outside people’s houses, indicating that they need food or other assistance.

The flags — sometimes little more than T-shirts or strips of cloth — are a cry for help from mostly low-income families who are financially affected by the another long coronavirus lockdown. The campaign, shared on social media as #benderaputih (“white flag”), is a way for families to appeal for food, work or other essentials as many businesses remain closed and joblessness rises.

Thousands of people have stepped in, including artists and celebrities. A rapper who goes by Altimet pledged to his nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram last week that, every Friday, he would donate food and supplies to houses marked with a white flag.

Renyi Chin, a restaurant owner in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, said he had donated $1,000 worth of food and supplies to families in the past week.

“This is our fourth lockdown, and many have lost their jobs and means for food,” Mr. Chin said. Many of those afflicted by the latest restrictions are single mothers, older Malaysians and daily wage workers, he added.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Malaysia, with average daily infections up 19 percent in the last two weeks, according to New York Times data, the government on Saturday announced a tightening of restrictions in several regions, including Kuala Lumpur and most of Selangor state. The country had 6,539 daily cases last week, and just 8 percent of its population is fully vaccinated, according to Times data.

Malaysia’s repeated lockdowns have lowered demand for labor, with the number of registered jobs dropping by 130,000 in just the first quarter of the year, according to government data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Suicides have risen during the first five months of this year, and the health ministry said that the pandemic is partly to blame.

Many in Malaysia say the government has failed to manage the economic impact of the pandemic. Outside some houses, black flags have appeared in a separate campaign calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

“We’re in our fourth lockdown and yet the cases are rising,” Mr. Chin said. “Something isn’t right.”

Members of the governing party have dismissed the campaign, with one lawmaker, Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, asking people to pray instead of waving flags. “Don’t admit defeat when being tested by teaching the people to raise a white flag,” he said in a Facebook post last week.

But Mr. Yassin’s opponents had a more favorable response. Zuraida Kamaruddin, the minister for housing and local government, voiced support for the campaign in a tweet, writing: “There is no need to beg and no need to be embarrassed. Just raise the flag.”

Portugal is a popular summer tourist destination within the European Union. Visitors took in the view of Lisbon last week.
Armando Franca/Associated Press

Portugal’s tourism industry received a boost late Monday when Germany said that it would lift a travel ban that had been recently introduced to help stop the spread of the Delta variant.

The Robert Koch Institute — Germany’s national disease control center — announced that Portugal, as well as Britain, Russia, India and Nepal, would be removed from a list of countries rated as being at the highest risk for travel. The change will take effect on Wednesday.

The Portuguese government had strongly criticized Germany’s earlier ban because it was the only nation on the list from the European Union. The bloc has been trying to align travel rules among its 27 member nations to help revive travel and tourism.

Just last week, Portugal reimposed curfews in several cities as the Delta variant surged through the country, another blow to some of its popular summer tourist destinations. The country has fully vaccinated about 37 percent of its total population, below the 47 percent in the United States, according to New York Times data.

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