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‘She Had Sweat Dripping Down From Her Hairline and Down Her Face’

A woman detained by ICE was sick with COVID-19 for days before being removed from a 50-person jail dorm in York County, Pennsylvania, according to women housed with her.

On March 25, Fabiola Chavez-Sanchez started getting sick. 

Chavez-Sanchez, a Mexican national and an ICE detainee, was having trouble breathing, according to Jennifer Rakowski, who shared a dorm for about five months with her and more than 50 other women at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison.

“She said that she had started feeling pain in her chest,” Rakowski told The Appeal. “She said she just didn’t feel right.”

Over a week later, the jail staff notified the dorm that Chavez-Sanchez, 37, had tested positive for COVID-19. By that point, her symptoms had visibly worsened and she had made several visits to medical staff.

Corrections officers had moved Chavez-Sanchez to quarantine four days earlier, but Rakowski recalled that she and her dorm mates were alarmed at the announcement. 

“Inmates were like ‘Whoa, what do you mean? We need to be tested then. What if we have it?’” Rakowski said. “Basically, it became a state of panic for people.”

In an April 4 press release, the county said a detainee had tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolated “immediately upon presenting with symptoms.” The release did not identify Chavez-Sanchez by name, and county spokesperson Mark Walters declined to answer The Appeal’s questions about Chavez-Sanchez and Rakowski’s account.

However, an ICE spokesperson identified the person as a 37-year-old Mexican national.

“The stuff that went on was not right,” said Rakowski. “The medical care was not given that should have been given. The way things were handled were not right.”

Corrections officers first sent Chavez-Sanchez to see medical staff on March 25, when she said she had trouble breathing, but she returned to the dorm about 15 minutes later, according to Rakowski.

The next day, Chavez-Sanchez again asked to see medical staff. Her symptoms were getting worse. Along with shortness of breath, she was now experiencing chills, Rakowski noted in a journal she kept during her incarceration and shared with The Appeal. Again, Chavez-Sanchez saw medical staff and returned to her dorm.

Chavez-Sanchez’s flulike symptoms continued to worsen, according to Rakowski, and each day she went to see medical staff only to be sent back to her dorm shortly after.

On March 30, Rakowski said Chavez-Sanchez was sitting at the lunch table with her head down and not eating when a corrections officer approached her.

“She had sweat dripping down from her hairline and down her face,” Rakowski said. “The CO came up and said, ‘Are you OK? Are you going to pass out?’ She said, ‘No, but I don’t feel well.’”

Chavez-Sanchez was once again taken to see medical staff and returned to the dorm less than two hours later.

Around 6 that evening, a corrections officer and medical staff came into the dorm and said that Chavez-Sanchez had to pack her belongings, Rakowski said. They were moving her to quarantine. 

The dorm was then placed on cohort status, Rakowski said, meaning the women were not allowed to leave the area. Medical staff began taking the women’s temperatures daily.

On April 3, Rakowski said the women in her dorm were notified by jail staff that the ICE detainee who was removed from the dorm and put in quarantine had tested positive for COVID-19. Rakowski said the only person who was removed from the dorm and put in quarantine was Chavez-Sanchez.

The Appeal also spoke with the mother of a woman currently incarcerated at the jail and lawyers for another woman being held there by ICE. Both women were held with Chavez-Sanchez and confirmed that the jail waited five days from the point Chavez-Sanchez began showing symptoms to remove her and test her for COVID-19.

Six incarcerated people in the jail have been tested for COVID-19 as of April 21, said Walters, the county spokesperson. Only one incarcerated person and one corrections officer have tested positive for the virus, he said. As of March 31, more than 1,400 people were housed in the jail.

But Rakowski said several other women in the dorm with her and Chavez-Sanchez started showing flulike symptoms after Chavez-Sanchez was removed. Rakowski said the medical staff told the dorm that multiple women had shown symptoms of COVID-19 but were not being removed because of lack of space and they did not have fevers. According to an April 19 message sent to Rakowski by a woman in the dorm, one incarcerated woman who had flulike symptoms was not removed or tested because she was told the medical wing was full.

Days after Chavez-Sanchez tested positive for COVID-19, Rakowski said she overheard the warden, Clair Doll, tell a corrections officer that Chavez-Sanchez hadn’t tested positive and those in the dorm needed to calm down. Rakowski said she confronted Doll, and she recalled him saying that the “issue” was handled, and that she and others in the dorm were overreacting and causing problems. A spokesperson for the jail did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment about Doll.

By the time Rakowski was released on parole on April 13, about 20 women had been released from the jail to the community, she said, but had not been tested for COVID-19 beforehand. Nor was she tested, she said.

The Appeal spoke with an attorney for another woman in ICE custody at York County Prison who was released on April 14. The woman, who was housed with Chavez-Sanchez, had not been tested for COVID-19 before being released, according to the attorney.

According to the World Health Organization, it can take up to two weeks from when a person is exposed to COVID-19 before they begin to show symptoms. People who contract the virus can be contagious even before they show symptoms and even when they have few or no symptoms.

Chavez-Sanchez has since recovered, according to her lawyer William Menard, and the jail released her on April 20. She had been in the jail for more than a year awaiting deportation proceedings, Menard said. She was arrested on state criminal charges but was acquitted earlier this year. Her record is sealed.

When The Appeal first spoke with Menard on April 18 to confirm Rakowski’s account, he said he had been unable to reach Chavez-Sanchez for several weeks, and that neither ICE nor York County officials would provide him information on her.

“At times, it was a struggle to both obtain information from the prison regarding her health and to communicate with my client,” he told The Appeal in an email. “Nevertheless, following her release, I am now focused on advocating for Fabiola as she continues to fight to remain in the United States with her family.”