Boy who died in U.S. custody tested positive for influenza; cause of death still under investigation

Washington Post

The 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody this month tested positive for influenza, a highly contagious respiratory virus that physicians warn could spread easily in jails and other crowded facilities.

The New Mexico medical examiner's office said this week that Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who was the second child to die in federal custody this month, tested positive for influenza B, but officials said the cause of death is still pending additional testing.

"We appreciate the public's understanding that this investigation must not be rushed to ensure thorough observations and accurate conclusions about how this child died," the medical examiner's office said. "We extend our condolences to his family and loved ones."

A cause has not yet been determined in the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal earlier this month.

The test results for Felipe come amid mounting questions surrounding his care, and rising calls for the Department of Homeland Security to stop detaining immigrant children in facilities where disease can spread.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said they released Felipe's father, 47-year-old Agustin Gomez Perez on his own recognizance Thursday, after his impoverished family in Guatemala begged for his release so he could work and send money home. On Friday, the family urged officials to return Felipe's remains so they can bury him.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has ordered investigations of the deaths and additional health screenings of children, and asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine why more migrants appear to be getting sick. Nielsen was to tour border facilities in El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, on Friday and Saturday to examine conditions, but she did not allow reporters to attend and did not report on her findings.

CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services did not answer questions about their efforts this week.

Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the flu could easily spread in the crowded, air-conditioned facilities where migrants are often detained, and urged federal officials to release the children. She called such conditions "a recipe for disaster."

Four child deaths from the flu were reported to the CDC last week, bringing the season's total to 11 for children. Ten of those deaths were linked to influenza A, and one was influenza B, which was not Felipe's case.

In El Paso, where immigration officials have unexpectedly released hundreds of migrants in recent days, two adult migrants are hospitalized with the flu, said Robert Resendes of the El Paso Health Department.

A 1-year-old was also taken to the emergency room with respiratory illness Friday and given a prescription for Tamiflu, which is used to treat the flu, said Ruben Garcia, executive director of El Paso's Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides temporary shelter to migrants.

ICE said it has released hundreds of migrants in recent months in part because of a 20-day court-imposed limit on how long it can detain children.

In El Paso, Garcia said a handful of migrants in his area have required trips to the emergency room.

"Most of the ER visits have been in relation to fevers and congestion, which you would normally associate with colds and flu," he said.

ICE spokeswoman Liz Johnson said they have "curtailed reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended along the southwest border" so that they can release them before the court's deadline.

Previously, the agency released family members after ensuring they had travel arrangements to reach a relative or another destination in the United States.

"ICE is redoubling its efforts to work with local and state officials and NGO partners in the area so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation or other services," she said.

Flu killed and hospitalized more people in the United States last winter than in decades. About 80,000 people died in the 2017-2018 season, including 180 children, according to the CDC.

The CDC is sending influenza response teams to the U.S.-Mexico border region in Texas and Arizona, Resendes said.

Moore reported from El Paso, Texas. The Washington Post's Lena Sun contributed to this report.

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