Border cities endure grim COVID-19 toll, learn from miscues


El Paso and Juarez urge residents to continue practicing prevention because vaccine not a cure-all

Warning: Graphic content

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — COVID-19 ravaged border businesses and left many families mourning the deaths of loved ones in 2020.

But with 2021 around the corner, health officials in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico are cautiously optimistic things will get better. They point to a weeks-long decline in new infections, vaccines being on the way and a medical community and general population that learned from early mistakes how to best respond to the pandemic.

“I think we learned a lot and potentially failed a lot. There were things we needed to do in 2020 we struggled with. We had the conversation on masks, physical distancing, testing and whether we were open or closed. Those have all been struggles,” said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, co-chair of El Paso’s COVID-19 Task Force.

The coronavirus infected more than 98,000 El Paso County residents in 2020 and has led to 1,452 deaths so far. Across the border, Juarez has recorded 2,407 fatalities and documented 26,017 cases, though the latter number is likely much higher because hospitals there for the most part only test people who show up sick.

Dr. Ogechika Alozie

Border medical workers also learned to optimize resources when hospitals were nearing capacity. They went from administering basic care with no treatment to learning the ins and outs of recently approved medications against the coronavirus. They also had to make due with mobile field morgues during a surge.

“We go from no treatment at all … to all these (medications) and changes in ways we handle people in the Intensive Care Unit. We learned in so many ways as a medical and as a health care community,” Alozie said. “All health care operators in the community, all the hospital systems did an amazing job in creating space. When we were peaking, we created an amazing relationship between multiple hospitals, multiple physicians, between state and the national government that sent us help.”

Economic debate caused a rift

Border travel restrictions have forced many Downtown El Paso stores to remain closed for lack of Mexican customers. Juarez shut down bars, gyms and restricted occupancy at non-essential businesses. All that has left thousands of workers in limbo.

In El Paso, the mayor and the county judge engaged in a tug-of-war over closing non-essential businesses at the height of the pandemic this fall. That was a miscue some say offers a learning opportunity, should another crisis come along.

“Because of the politicization of things, it sort of opened up rifts in our community. Initially, that probably delayed some of our progress. What’s exciting and hopeful is that the City eventually coalesced around what we needed to do as a community,” Alozie said. “And people can complain about (others) not following certain mandates or orders, but I think as a community (we) did come together and reduced mobility.”

Officials in both cities relied on data from internet and mobile telephone service providers to track trends in mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic. They say they’ve seen a reduction in mobility of 20 percent to 25 percent.

The COVID-19 curve in the state of Chihuahua shows fewer new infections diagnosed in Juarez and other cities there. (graphic courtesy State of Chihuahua)

Juarez struggled to get the prevention message across for several months, with local media documenting street markets open when they should be closed and citizens walking around Downtown with no masks.

But after a deadly late October/early November spike, residents finally got the message. There was no post-Thanksgiving spike and no signs yet of a post-Christmas crisis.

Dr. Wendy Avila

“We hope that in 2021, things will improve with the help of people who are being responsible, reducing mobility and practicing preventive measures,” said Dr. Wendy Avila, deputy director of preventive services for the Chihuahua State Health Department. “We hope things improve more with the vaccine, but that is not the (ultimate) solution. We need to keep our distance, keep our masks on, avoid gatherings.”

In El Paso, Alozie expressed hope that the pandemic “burns itself out” in the next few months.

“I hope people understand that this hopefully is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I really think we’re seeing the end of this pandemic over the next two to three months. Not just because of vaccines, but because we’ve had this natural evolution of potentially burning itself out,” he said.

AP file photo

But neither that nor fears over a possible adverse reaction to the Pfizer or Moderna shot should deter anyone from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, health officials say.

“Don’t trust fake news, trust the medical community, trust the scientists that know about this. Don’t hesitate to get the vaccine” when it becomes available to the general public, Avila said.

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