Border officials ready for COVID-19 while fighting fear and ‘ignorance’


EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Border health officials walk a fine line as they prepare for the possible arrival of a coronavirus outbreak in a region were cross-border commerce and commutes are the norm.

On one hand, they want the public to know the symptoms and be ready to report them. On the other hand, they don’t want panicky citizens demanding tests to calm unfounded fears.

Already, the head of El Paso’s City Health Department acknowledges dealing with a woman who wanted her sick brother tested for coronavirus because he’d been in contact with an Asian person.

“This is not a racist disease,” said Robert Resendes. “It’s (about) good science. But with fear and — sometimes — I’d say ignorance, it’s important that we educate our people. We’re usually afraid of the things we’re unfamiliar with and unknown. This is new and unknown.”

Neither El Paso, Texas nor it’s Mexican neighbor Juarez or it’s New Mexican neighbor Las Cruces have confirmed any COVID-19 cases, Resendes said. On Wednesday, however, the state of New Mexico said it had detected three travel-related cases, but didn’t immediately say in which towns.

The Health Department received 400 testing kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and so far has only used one. The testing is done here so results are available within four hours. Because of its laboratory capacity, other Texas cities that may encounter the virus could be relying on El Paso to do the tests, Resendes said.

A common fear in the community is that the coronavirus may strike the children. The Health Department is in close contact with the school districts, but officials say the young ones aren’t likely targets for the virus.

“This disease is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s being very specific. What we’re seeing is that people over 80 are more susceptible to the virus, including fatalities. There is a 15 to 16 percent death rate for an 80-plus-year-old,” the health official said. “If you’re in your 70s, it’s about half that.”

Those who are young than 50 have less than one-half of 1 percent chance of dying, he said.

“We care about our children, of course we do, but so far this disease — the way it’s been expressing itself in the last three months — the children aren’t infected, the children aren’t dying from this disease, but our seniors are. And as we work our plan, we need to care about our seniors,” Resendes said.

The Health Department in the coming days will be talking with operators or nursing homes to foster cooperation and communication, he said.

In contact with Texas cities, Mexico

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said he’s in daily contact with leaders in Texas’ other six most-populous counties. This allowed him to learn about the cancellation of Austin’s South By Southwest Arts and Music Festival before other people, he said, and enables both El Paso County and the others to have real-time information about what’s going on with coronavirus in the state.

The same holds true with Mexico, said City Health Department lead epidemiologist Fernando Gonzalez, who calls his counterparts in Juarez twice a day to know what’s going on.

The challenges in Juarez include the movement of tens of thousands of people daily across the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the arrival of foreign executives — including from China — to the maquiladora manufacturing plants.

“Most of the challenges are overcome by the excellent relationship,” Gonzalez said. “We have an excellent relationship that gives us security on all the preventive activities that we perform in the region.”

Despite rumors about quarantines and possible positive cases, Gonzalez said no one has tested positive for the coronavirus in Juarez and “to my knowledge,” no one is in quarantine.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he feels confident the border is ready to deal with the possible arrival of COVID-19. He recommends his citizens to “follow basic steps” to avoid getting sick or spreading the disease. That includes hand-washing, covering up when sneezing and, if sick, avoid going to work.

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