County commissioners court members say they’d like to know why state health department officials are being asked to stay out of a new immigrant detention facility in Carrizo Springs.
Questions about access to the facility arose during a routine presentation by Jose Guerrero, a registered nurse with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), about recent activities in DSHS Region 8, an area that includes Val Verde.
County Commissioner Pct. 3 Beau Nettleton during the discussion asked, “Are you all tracking anything on these asylum seekers?”
Guerrero introduced Dr. Lillian Ringsdorf, DSHS Region 8 medical director.
“As for the asylum seekers, they are being watched for any infectious diseases, and if any are detected, they are reported to us at the state. Should there need to be any kind of investigation or quarantine, then we assist the facility with that,” Ringsdorf replied.
“Do you provide those reports to us, of what you all find?” Nettleton asked.
“So far, we haven’t found very much. We’ve seen some varicella (chicken pox), but there haven’t been outbreaks of diseases. I have to say, because it’s a federal operation, the information is being held very closely, so closely in fact, that I, along with a couple of my head staff were planning to go visit the facility in Carrizo Springs on Monday, but the governor requested that we do not do that ... We’re trying to establish the relationships with these facilities so we can assist them,” Ringsdorf said.
“Why would the governor tell you not to get involved?” Nettleton asked.
“We’re involved in some way. So for instance, in the Carrizo Springs facility, we have enrolled and set them up as a provider for Texas Vaccines for Children, so as of today, they’re going to get a shipment of vaccine through us, so they can start vaccinating the children.
“We have certain requirements for congregated settings where we do certain inspections for things like food service, to make sure they’re handling the food correctly and not making people sick, and disease surveillance, assisting them with that. The organization that’s been contracted by the federal government to run the facilities within our region is BCFS, and they have a lot of experience running shelters. We have a good relationship with them, so we’re trying to have little points of entry however we can, but it’s so political,” Ringsdorf said.
Nettleton asked if the federal government tracks any diseases found.
“Yes, we report to them,” the doctor said.
“Since it’s run by them (the federal government), they could shut us out; they could tell us as little as they want. We’re trying to build the relationships so we can get that information,” she added.
County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr. told Ringsdorf at least one state agency has told county officials that the state could not step in to assist with immigrant health issues “until it became an epidemic.”
“That’s not what we would have told someone,” Ringsdorf said.
“We are navigating this complicated situation as well. We’re regional within the state department. The feds are running the asylum-seeking housing, so they can tell us as little or as much as they want,” she said.
“It would appear to me that the state would want to know what’s going on,” Nettleton said.
“We do. I can’t speak for why the governor told us that. He didn’t tell us directly, so we’re feeling it out,” Ringsdorf replied.
“What about the ones that have already been released, the family units?” Nettleton asked.
“They’ve gotten health screenings and their vaccinations up-to-date, and then they’re released into the community and asked to find a medical home,” Ringsdorf said.
She said the most serious diseases seen are tuberculosis and chicken pox.
Owens said the county has asked the Val Verde Regional Medical Center if it could set up a clinic at the Border Patrol facility here, so immigrants could be medically screened there instead of being taken to the hospital. He said the hospital has promised to consider the suggestion.
“We do know the countries where these people are coming from, and we know what diseases are there. There’s nothing currently that’s terrifying us. It’s normal diseases that we know how to deal with,” Ringsdorf said.
“It may not terrify you all, but I can tell you that we were in a meeting with probably 13 to 15 (local) doctors about two weeks ago, and they’re scared,” Owens said.
“Afraid of the unknown,” Ringsdorf said.
“They’re still scared. My question to you is, could you help the hospital? Is that a service you could help us with to try to put something together where we’re not having to see them at the hospital?” Owens asked.
Ringsdorf said she would try to work on the issue.
She also volunteered to have a conversation with the doctors at the hospital “letting them know what diseases are prevalent in the countries from which these people are coming, what things to be concerned about, what things to not be concerned about.”
“We do have a few asylum seekers coming from the Congo, so that’s caused people to panic,” she went on.
“A few?” Nettleton asked.
“Well, it’s caused people to panic because in an area of the Congo, there is ebola. The good news is that it takes more than 21 days to get here from the Congo, and 21 days is the incubation period for ebola, so if you ask that question, and they left over 21 days ago, you can take a big deep breath and just cross ebola off of your concern list,” Ringsdorf said.
“Maybe just giving some of that information to the doctors at the hospital to lower their panic level might also be a service we could provide,” she added.
“I think the part that concerns me the most was the start of this conversation that we’re having problems getting our foot in the door on some of these facilities. I know from my level, I would want to know what is going on in every single facility. I would assume that the state of Texas would want to know what is going on since they’re being released into our state,” Nettleton said.
“I understand the politics involved, but at the end of the day, these people are being released into our communities and I could care less about the politics at this stage of the game,” Nettleton added.
“Ultimately, I report to the governor,” Ringsdorf said.
“I would want to know why anybody’s even trying to keep us out?” Nettleton wondered aloud.
“It makes you wonder,” Ringsdorf said.