EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A top El Paso County official believes there’s a way to reinvigorate businesses reeling from 16 months of borderland travel restrictions while ensuring COVID-19 herd immunity on both sides: Let them all in.

“I believe the only way we can do this is to open the border. Allow us to provide the resources (and) anybody that comes here gets a shot. We don’t have to ask any questions,” County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said.

El Paso has already spent thousands of its allotted COVID-19 vaccines on Juarez residents. First, it set up a pilot program near the Ysleta port of entry to vaccinate hundreds of Mexican truckers hauling parts and goods assembled in Juarez on behalf of U.S. companies. The county also provided 34,000 shots for Mexican maquiladora workers at the Tornillo, Texas port of entry.

“Thirty-four thousand is a great humanitarian number but it’s not a great number in the context of (attaining) herd immunity. If they (U.S. federal officials) give us the opportunity to do the hubs like we did at the beginning of our situation, I think we’ll do really well,” Samaniego said.

Samaniego said El Paso leads the state in COVID-19 vaccination rates thanks to local partnerships and outreach efforts to get the word out about free vaccines and dispel myths about dangerous side effects.

As of Wednesday, 71.3% of county residents over 12 years old were fully vaccinated while 84% had received at least one dose.

The Department of Homeland Security established border travel restrictions in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world. DHS extended the restrictions through Aug. 21 citing a spike in cases and hospitalizations and the rapid spread of the new Delta variant.

Earlier this month, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the restrictions likely will continue in place this month.

Across the border in Juarez, the vaccination rate is hard to verify. Various Juarez city and Chihuahua state officials say up to 90% of the population has been vaccinated to date. The first vaccines arrived only last spring.

Juarez vaccination rate questioned

Samaniego said he’s “leery” of Juarez’s claims, given the investment of time, resources and outreach that it took El Paso to get to the current 84% partial vaccination rate.

“We have one of the most sophisticated logistics systems (in El Paso County). We were doing 20,000 (vaccines) a day. Unless (Juarez) is to do it at that level – I don’t know they’re capable of doing that – I just know it took us a lot of months before we got to that point,” Samaniego said. “I think saying the truth is best. I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you it would be very difficult for us to reach herd immunity in that speed.”

The uncertainty over Juarez’s actual vaccination rate is one more reason to allow Mexican residents to come across the border and vaccinate them, he said.

While El Paso County compiles hard data from hospitals, clinics, practitioners, and works closely with the Texas Department of Public Health Services, the Mexican federal government controls vaccine distribution and recordkeeping.

Business leaders like Thor Salayandia, president of the Juarez Business Council, said he believes 80% to 90% of adults in Juarez have gotten COVID-19 shots.

“(The numbers) are truthful. You can see every time we have vaccination; the centers are full. More and more people are getting vaccinated,” he said. “Of course, some people don’t want to get vaccinated, because it’s not obligatory.”

A Border Report and KTSM crew on Wednesday visited Downtown Juarez and the Galeana and Chaveña neighborhoods to ask residents if they were vaccinated. Several said they were not.

Juarez street vendor Jose Macario Martinez (Border Report photo)

“I have not received a COVID-19. I want to get a shot, but I don’t know where to go,” said Jose Macario Martinez, a soda vendor who works behind the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. “They should have a vaccination center in the neighborhoods because many people don’t want to travel too far.”

Horacio, a welder in the Chaveña neighborhood, said he was out of town during the last mass vaccination event. He missed previous events because he didn’t know they were going on.

Ofelia Garcia said she is fully vaccinated, but her 72-year-old brother and 47-year-old nephew are not.

“Nobody told my brother and my nephew doesn’t have (identification). They require too many things and some people are creating panic among those who are unvaccinated,” the Chaveña resident said. “You have to sign up online and many people don’t have internet. Some don’t read or write and it’s complicated for them. They should bring (the vaccinations) to the colonias and have the (health) workers help people.”