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Opinion: We Are Risking Health And Life

It's flu shot season. Signs alerting and urging you to get a flu shot now may be up at your pharmacy or workplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone over 6 months old get a flu shot by the end of October, so the vaccine can begin to work before the influenza season begins.

But this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would not give flu shots to the thousands of migrants now in its detention centers.

"Due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and the complexities of operating vaccination programs," the agency said in a statement, "neither CBP nor its medical contractors administer vaccinations to those in our custody."

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health called the department's edict, "short-term thinking."

"Holding a number of unvaccinated people in a crowded space could be like maintaining an amusement park for flu viruses," he wrote for Forbes. He explains that viruses could spread through the congested, often cold, and unsanitary detention camps, and get passed between those people who've been detained — weak, tired and dusty — as well as those who work there.

Viruses spread. They cannot be "detained," like people.

During a particularly brutal flu season two years ago, the CDC estimated about 80,000 people, including 600 children, died across the U.S. after being infected by influenza. Last season's flu set records for its length — lasting 21 weeks.

On Aug. 1, a group of six physicians from Johns Hopkins and the MassGeneral Hospital for Children wrote a letter to members of Congress in which they said at least three children infected with influenza have died in U.S. custody since December of 2018.

The children were 2, 8 and 16. They were named Wilmer, Felipe and Carlos.

The doctors advised Congress, "During the influenza season, vaccination should be offered to all detainees promptly upon arrival in order to maximize protection for the youngest and most vulnerable detainees."

This week I read of the government's determination not to give seasonal flu shots to migrants in detention centers and had to ask: What possible good will this do? Is it worth the risk to health and life? And what does this policy say about America?

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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