Health care services at Pilsen migrant shelter fall short of promises: medical advocates

Days after a child living at a Chicago migrant shelter died and others were hospitalized, a group of medical providers close to the shelter are alleging health care services at the shelter are nowhere near what the city had promised.

Of the 2,500 people — more than half minors — living at the shelter at 2241 S. Halsted St. in Pilsen, just 400 had received any "basic health intake or screening," according to a letter the group released late Friday evening.

Additionally, the medical provider for the shelter — by far the largest migrant site in Chicago — was present only once per week and for only four hours at a time, according to documents obtained through open records requests.

The authors of the letter sent it late Friday to city officials as a plea to "mobilize a collective effort to prevent further harm at all shelter locations" by opening them up to medical professionals who were previously volunteering to treat migrants.

The shelter’s current provider — Lawndale Christian Health Center — saw only about 30 patients per visit, advocates said, far too few given the thousands of people there.

The West Side-based health organization did not return calls throughout last week seeking details or comment about their work at the shelter.

Many migrants living at the shelter also say they have received little to no medical aid there.

That stands in stark contrast to what the city has said about health services for migrants in shelters after the death of 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martínez Rivero, who died at the shelter or shortly afterward on Sunday.

The city has said his death is under investigation, although officials said he did not have an infectious disease. Autopsy results are pending and likely won’t be released for several weeks, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Since Martínez Rivero’s death, the city has said "we have implemented thorough health screenings at shelters" — but city officials have not responded to questions about how many migrants have actually been screened.

In a statement Friday evening, the Chicago Department of Public Health described them as "primary care" screenings that included a behavioral health assessment and substance use consultation. The statement did not detail who is conducting the screenings or keeping track of them.

The statement does note additional health teams have recently been deployed to the Pilsen shelter.

RELATED: New details emerge in death of young migrant in Chicago

Many migrants in shelters say they haven’t had the screenings.

With so many cots right next to another, many have fallen ill, said a father of a family staying at the Pilsen shelter. Fearing retaliation, he asked his name not be used.

"Everyone’s sick, from adults to little kids," he said. "What you get, the next person does, too."

Some physicians who work in clinics near shelters say many migrants’ doctor visits are their first since arriving. That is "despite being in Chicago for, sometimes, months," said Dr. Rebekah Fenton, a physician at Alivio Medical Center, a clinic near the Pilsen shelter that accepts uninsured patients.

MORE: Chicago migrants say illnesses spread quickly at crowded Pilsen shelter

Fenton, a specialist in treating adolescents, said the number of migrant patients his clinic has seen "significantly increased in the past few months since the shelter opened."

Many children visited initially for routine school vaccinations.

Later, those relatively healthy patients returned with illnesses Fenton had not expected to treat — a sharp contrast from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s words Monday, when he said migrants being bused from Texas were "showing up sick."

"I was trained to diagnose chickenpox but had never really seen it on patients," Fenton said. "It’s been challenging to expand my thinking of what to expect."

Other common illnesses include strep throat, flu and respiratory viruses. Those infections, she said, are likely a direct result of shelter conditions.

"Because of the close contact in which they’re living, they’re being exposed to things beyond what they should be," she said.

"It sucks that a child’s death is what’s prompting this conversation."

The letter, signed by several groups that had been treating migrants when they were staying at police stations, is their latest effort to get the shelters opened to professionals willing to help.

"If the biggest problem is the red tape, we need to cut the red tape," Sara Izquierdo, founder of the Mobile Migrant Health Team, said at a press conference Thursday. "We have all these resources in this beautiful giant city we are not using."