Health concerns grow over Chicago migrant shelters after boy dies, 4 others hospitalized

Wednesday, December 20, 2023
Concerns rise about Chicago migrants' health as more ambulances called to shelter
After a 5-year-old boy got sick and died in a Chicago migrant shelter, there are increased concerns about conditions and access to health services.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The fallout continues to grow after one child died from illness at a Chicago migrant shelter and several more have been transported to hospitals.

Yet another ambulance responded to the massive new arrival shelter in Pilsen Tuesday morning. There are calls for the staff and federal government to step in.

The fire department said they took a woman in her late 40s to a local hospital for chest pain.

"It's a bad situation," said one migrant. "There are a lot of sick children."

Late Monday night, a three-year-old who was vomiting and a seven-year-old girl with an ear infection were rushed to UIC.

After a five-year-old migrant boy died Monday, concerns have been raised about access to medical care and transparency at Chicago shelters.

That came after four other children with fevers and a teenager were transported to care, adding to the growing list of medical emergencies at the shelter where a five-year-old boy got sick and later died Sunday.

Tuesday afternoon, new information was released about the death of five-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez. The city said in a statement it does not appear he died from an infectious disease, and said there is no evidence of an outbreak at the shelter. The official cause of death is still under investigation.

Juan Carlos Martinez.
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Favorite Staffing, a Kansas-based company, was hired by the city to provide services at all Chicago shelters. Despite ongoing complaints about their cost relative to the service provided, the city signed a new $40 million contract with them in October, much to the dismay of those who have seen firsthand how the shelters are being run.

"Families have been very clear that there is no real care, there is no empathy. It is just someone checking people in, checking people out," said Erika Villegas, a volunteer with the police station response team. "Our understanding is that there is a doctor that goes there four hours a week to service 2,500 people. That is unacceptable."

Villegas' car is packed with items she distributes to those still at Midway Airport and now in shelters across the city. As of tomorrow she and others will be administering basic over the counter painkillers and fever reducers to sick migrants at the Pilsen Shelter.

Favorite Staffing released a statement saying, "We are heartbroken to learn of the death of a child at a Pilsen shelter on Sunday, and we send our deepest condolences to his loved ones and community. We take the safety and wellbeing of all shelter residents seriously. Our team is working closely with the City of Chicago and other authorities to support an investigation into what occurred."

"There's a medical emergency at this shelter literally as we're standing here," former mayoral candidate Ja'Mal Green said. "Governor JB Pritzker needs to step in."

Green held a news conference outside the shelter near 23rd and Halsted streets calling on the state and the federal government to investigate the health conditions at the shelter.

Many migrants said illnesses there are spreading quickly. They also claim there's no access to medical care and Green believes the city has dropped the ball.

"The city at this moment should put a cap on the amount of migrants that we're taking in," Green said. "We should not be taking any more migrants here when we know we can't take care of 'em."

Veronica Saldana, who works at the Pilsen Food Pantry and Clothing Donation Center, and was part of a site visit inside the shelter Monday is also raising concerns about transparency. She questioned the city's 48-hour advance notice requirement for alderpersons wanting to a site inspection, and said her group has been trying to get access to the Pilsen shelter for 11 weeks.

"And so we want to just partner with them in whatever way that we can. And it took all of this time it took the death of a five-year-old to get access," she said.

In the wake of Martinez's, city leaders said they are investigating and vowing to make changes to safety protocols based on their findings. The mayor's office also defended their notice policy, saying it's less about inspection than it is about coordinating to have all the needed departments on site

But Saldana is also concerned about medical care for migrants, and said groups who have provided care for new arrivals staying at police stations have offered to help the shelters but were rebuffed by the Johnson administration.

"We could help with our mobile migrant health team getting in there and triaging, you know, the sick folks. People wouldn't be suffering with fevers for days and things like that," she said.

There are more than 2,300 new arrivals living at the warehouse-turned-shelter

The mayor claimed Monday that the city is providing onsite medical care. He also pointed to conditions in the border states before asylum seekers make their way to Chicago.

ABC7 has reached out to the governor's office for comment and have not heard back.

Statement on shelter safety from the City of Chicago

"The City of Chicago is currently sheltering 13,992 new arrivals at 27 temporary shelters. Many new arrivals survive brutal and dangerous journeys to border states and are promptly and inhumanely shipped out with little to no triage. In border states, new arrivals are spending the night outdoors without a shower, running water, or food. Border states do not take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of individuals they load onto buses. This carelessness directly contributed to the death of a three-year-old girl in September of this year and may continue to have devastating effects.

"When new arrivals reach our city from the Southern border, the City of Chicago puts forth every effort to keep them healthy. Decompressing police stations was crucial to new arrivals' wellness as we have implemented thorough health screenings at shelters. Public health screenings are provided to all new arrivals to identify individuals with acute medical conditions or emergencies that should be directed to an emergency room. Once placed at a City shelter, all new arrivals are offered opt-in transportation to Cook County Health (CCH) for a medical intake or a sick visit.
"The shelter at 2241 S. Halsted St. houses a large population of new arrivals who might have multiple needs for evaluation. For this and any other shelter, anyone with acute medical needs that requires immediate attention should be transported to the nearest emergency department for assistance.

"Additionally, the Chicago Department of Public Health funds healthcare partners to go onsite to shelters weekly to provide shelter-based care to individuals who might not have plans to go to CCH. City shelters also receive healthcare referral lists to provide new arrivals that are interested in seeking care directly and on their own. Transportation to nearby emergency departments is provided to shelter residents with acute needs or who are experiencing urgent medical duress.

"Many new arrivals receive catch-up vaccinations during their scheduled medical encounters at the Cook County Health Belmont Cragin migrant clinic, as well as from other Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and other providers caring for new arrivals. The Chicago Department of Public Health continues to support shelter-based care through its partners, including on-site screenings, infection prevention, and vaccinations.

"An investigation is ongoing and any changes to safety protocols for staff will be made based on the findings. Currently, physical health protocol in an emergency (i.e. chest pain, difficulty breathing, decreased responsiveness, confusion, unstoppable bleeding, severe pain, blue or unexplained pale skin), shelter staff are directed to call 9-1-1 and report any medical emergencies in line with the Critical Incident Reporting protocol. Shelter staff may also refer people to Cook County Health, FQHCs, Shelter Base Care (LCOs) for non-urgent care.

"We are at a critical point in the humanitarian crisis and the city is facing the challenge to provide shelter for the daily influx of new arrivals sent to Chicago from the southern border. All temporary emergency shelters that have been opened were selected due to the large capacity they can safely serve; the facility is in good condition, requires minimal upgrades and are available for emergency activation within a short timeframe. With the fluid nature of this endeavor, and the high number of individuals arriving each day it is vital we provide safe, secure, and temporary emergency shelter for asylum seekers to receive necessary services to resettle in Chicago or another destination with dignity.

"The Johnson Administration has continuously worked to improve shelter conditions by renegotiating inherited contracts, issuing RFPs, and prioritizing safety. We are committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the Department of Family Support Services and mutual aid groups on improving this operation.

"Chicago continues to prioritize safety and improving our New Arrivals Mission, but any life lost prematurely is a grave tragedy. The death of a child is a deeply tragic event, and our condolences go out to the Martinez family. The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) is coordinating with the Cook County Medical Examiner, who is investigating the cause of death, along with the Mayor's Office and other city agencies to investigate this incident. We will provide updates as more information becomes available."