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Guatemala’s minister of health Tuesday said the United States was practically the Wuhan of the region — referring to the Chinese city at the epicenter of the coronavirus — while claiming deportees from the U.S. have caused a sharp spike in Guatemalan cases.
Hugo Monroy told reporters that more than half of deportees from the U.S. have contracted the virus and on one flight at least 75 percent had tested positive, The Los Angeles Times reported.
“There are really flights where the deportees arrive … citizens who come with fever, and they get on the planes that way,” Monroy said. “We automatically evaluate them here and test them and many of them have come back positive.”
Hundreds of Guatemalans have been flown back from the U.S. in the last few weeks.
Later, presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval told reporters that Monroy had been referring to one March flight on which “between 50 percent and 75 percent (of the passengers) during all their time in isolation and quarantine have come back positive.”
At first, Monroy said he meant “all the flights,” but then said he was referring to one flight.
By Tuesday, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry’s official number of coronavirus cases among those deported from the U.S. was four, including one person who flew back on Monday.
U.S. immigration officials have said that of the more than 33,000 migrants in detention, 77 have tested positive, the Times reported.
Guatemala briefly blocked deportation flights from the U.S. in mid-March as concerns about the virus ramped up before resuming them two days later, then pausing again for a week until Monday.
In late March, Vice President Guillermo Castillo pleaded for the U.S. to halt deportation flights due to the pandemic, The Times reported.
The Guatemalan government had asked the United States to not send more than 25 deportees per flight, to give them health exams before departure and to certify that they were not infected.
It remained unclear why before Tuesday the government had only reported three deportees who tested positive and how many more would have been among the high percentage who tested positive aboard that March flight. Giammattei said Tuesday there were a total of 175 people who had tested positive in Guatemala and five who had died.
The U.S. has deported nearly 12,000 Guatemalans since January and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week the U.S. will continue assistance for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in an effort to lower illegal immigration.
Among the 12,000, more than 1,200 unaccompanied minors have been deported to Guatemala this year instead of being held at U.S. detention centers amid the outbreak.
Due to the virus, Guatemala is only accepting Guatemalan deportees, putting on hold a deal with the U.S. to take Honduran and El Salvadoran deportees as well.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Director Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Tuesday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released nearly 700 people from immigration detention around the country because their age or health conditions made them vulnerable to the virus. He also said authorities were taking steps to ensure that people who may have been exposed in custody are kept separate from other detainees.
“ICE is certainly committed to ensuring that comprehensive medical care is provided for all of their detainees from the moment they arrive in ICE custody through the entirety of their state,” Cuccinelli said.
The White House said Friday that any nation that denies or unreasonably delays admittance of deportees due to the virus could face visa sanctions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.