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In this file photo,  men work in the laundry room at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility.

A worker at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield has tested positive for the coronavirus. This is the first reported instance of COVID-19 at the facility.

In a statement to The Californian, GEO Group Inc., the private prison company that operates Mesa Verde for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said an employee of a subcontractor had tested positive for the virus. GEO said the individual was at home in self-quarantine, where they'd remain until they met return-to-work guidelines for essential workers issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the statement, GEO detailed the measures it was taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to other workers and detainees. The company said detainees at Mesa Verde had regular access to hand-washing and constant access to health care, with approximately double the number of health care staff employed there compared to other correctional facilities. Personal protective equipment has been deployed to all staff and detainees, GEO said. Specialized sanitation teams have also been used to sterilize high-contact areas.

“We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness,” a spokesman said in the statement, “and we will continue to work with the federal government and local health officials to implement best practices for the prevention, assessment and management of COVID-19, consistent with the latest guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, immigrant advocates have worried about an outbreak at Mesa Verde, saying the virus could spread easily in the close quarters of the facility’s four dorms. Several medically vulnerable detainees have already been released out of concern for what could happen if they contracted COVID-19.

“It was something that we have all feared,” said Angelica Salceda, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and class counsel for a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrant detainees at Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde. “So for us it was really a bombshell to hear, and get this information in this way, and then especially outrageous that the testing of this employee was effectively accidental.”

Salceda said news of the positive test first emerged during a case management conference for the lawsuit Friday morning. She said the government revealed the employee only got tested for the coronavirus because there happened to be a test available at the lab where they were working.

Advocates have called for the California attorney general to inspect the facility and the governor’s office to launch an independent investigation into conditions at Mesa Verde.

“The risk of it spreading in such confined quarters is imminent,” said Ambar Tovar, an attorney for the United Farm Workers Foundation. “It seems that ICE is routinely failing to meet even their own standards.”

ICE declined to comment for the story.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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