File photo: An employee at the Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the company that operates the facility confirmed Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Georgia immigration detention employee tests positive for coronavirus

An employee at a sprawling immigration detention center in South Georgia has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the company that operates the facility confirmed Tuesday.

CoreCivic — the Nashville-based corrections business that runs Stewart Detention Center — said the unidentified employee last worked there on March 20 and is now isolated at home. Nine other employees who had direct contact with that person have been told to self-quarantine at home for 14 days, CoreCivic said. Plus, 33 detainees who may have been in contact with the employee have been placed in quarantine in a separate housing unit at the detention center.

News of the positive coronavirus test result comes as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and corrections companies like CoreCivic are scrambling to prevent the highly contagious disease from gaining a foothold in immigration detention centers in Georgia and across the nation.

RELATED: Feds seek to shield Georgia immigration detention centers from virus

Located just outside the small city of Lumpkin, Stewart has capacity for 1,900 detainees. It has detained people from more than 140 countries and nearly every continent. CoreCivic said it is encouraging social distancing and regular handwashing there.

“Efforts are underway to notify other employees or contractors who may have been in contact with the individual who tested positive,” the company said. “CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

CoreCivic operates the detention center in Lumpkin through agreements with ICE and Stewart County.

ICE had no immediate comment.

The CoreCivic employee who tested positive for COVID-19 does not live in Stewart, according to Stewart County Manager Mac Moye. Moye, who previously worked as a case manager in the immigration detention center in Lumpkin, said he briefed the County Commission about the case and a separate one that popped up elsewhere in Stewart.

“Having worked at Stewart Detention Center, I know that contingency planning is an important thing, so I want us to be prepared,” Moye said. “I can’t predict what the scenarios might spin to. But what if it gets out in the population and what happens at that point?”

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of civil and immigrant advocacy groups from Georgia sent the state’s congressional delegation a letter, requesting the immediate release of ICE detainees amid the pandemic.

“The threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in immigration detention centers is imminent,” the letter says. “Immigration detention centers are already a hotbed for the transfer of various infectious diseases.”

Azadeh Shahshahani is the legal and advocacy director for one of the many groups behind the letter, Project South, an immigrant advocacy organization. She reacted to the CoreCivic employee’s positive COVID-19 test result Tuesday, saying: “Given this disturbing revelation, it is now even more urgent for ICE to immediately release detained immigrants from Stewart and shut this place down.”

She highlighted that four Stewart detainees have died from other causes since 2017, adding the facility is “certainly not equipped to deal with a deadly pandemic. The lives of thousands of detained immigrants as well as the prison workers are now on the line.”

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