Allison Boyer, Deputy Director, Departmental Operations, County of San Diego
An influx of asylum-seeking families at San Diego’s border with Mexico began in late 2018. An asylum-seeker is someone who comes to the United States seeking protection because they have suffered persecution, or fear they will suffer persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, political opinion or sexual orientation. Asylum-seekers have been granted asylum status by the Department of Homeland Security and are in the U.S. legally.
To handle this influx, the San Diego Rapid Response Network in October 2018 established a shelter for asylum seeking families. The San Diego Rapid Response Network is a coalition of human rights and service organizations, attorneys, and community leaders dedicated to aiding immigrants and their families in the region of the San Diego border. The shelter itself is operated by Jewish Family Service of San Diego.
In December 2018, the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency began to provide front-line support in the screening of all individuals entering the shelter for communicable diseases. The goal of this front-line support is to protect the health of the public, including that of asylum-seeking families. The County demonstrated agility, innovation, and a strong commitment by quickly deploying an Incident Command Structure to develop processes for staffing coordination, communication, communicable disease health screening tools, coordination of medical supplies and data collection. Leading this coordinated effort are incident commanders Barbara Jiménez, Director, Central & South Regions, and Dr. Jennifer Tuteur, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Medical Care Services Division. In addition to the County of San Diego, the private and public healthcare partnerships at the shelter include UC San Diego, San Ysidro Health and La Maestra Community Health Centers.
At the shelter, County and contracted nurses conduct health screenings and referrals for follow up care while County ancillary staff assist with translation and other needed resources and doctors assess all guests for follow up medical care. In alignment with the Live Well San Diego vision, the County provided training to shelter staff to promote self-care, resiliency and minimize secondary trauma.
In January 2019, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved the lease of a County-owned facility to Jewish Family Service as a temporary shelter site. This facility was much larger than any of the previous temporary shelter sites and had the capacity to house guests and store ample supplies needed to better serve these families.
In May 2019, an increased number of guests began to arrive at the shelter displaying Influenza like symptoms. Those found to have influenza-like symptoms are isolated in local hotel rooms with individual heating and air conditioning units. Accompanying family members are quarantined with their relatives and are also given treatment to prevent them from getting sick and spreading the virus. With the continued arrival of migrants to the shelter with influenza-like symptoms, all migrants without symptoms are also receiving treatment to prevent them from getting sick. County and migrant center medical staff visit patients daily in their hotel rooms to continue monitoring their symptoms, address medical needs and assess when they are well enough to travel. Because of the additional efforts, the County assigned an additional incident commander to the shelter, Dr. Elizabeth Hernandez, the assistant director of Public Health Services.
Often the people that arrive at the shelter have walked thousands of miles and faced tremendous trauma. Our County nurses and support staff have heard many heart-wrenching and touching stories, and received the rewards that come with touching lives. Summer Leal, a South Region public health nurse, shared one such story.
“I recently encountered a dad traveling with his little 3-year-old daughter,” Leal says. “When I first met them, this little girl was sitting on her dad’s lap, her eyes were closed, and she looked pale and listless. We gently approached them and with his permission, assessed the little girl who had a fever and a cough. She needed to be evaluated by our medical physicians on site. As a team, we were able to help her get better and prevent a more serious illness."
Leal continues, "This family touched me because I could see the worry on dad’s face. We reassured him that they were in a safe place and that she would receive good care. I know we made a difference.”
As of May 30, 2019, County staff, alongside contracted doctors and nurses, have teamed with volunteers from the San Diego Rapid Response Network to provide needed services to these asylum seekers legally in the United States, including more than 12,000 health screenings. They have carried out their duties with expert care and kindness, demonstrating collaboration, compassion and dedication. This is truly the Live Well San Diego vision in action.