Five test positive for coronavirus at Matamoros tent camp for asylum seekers


McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Five asylum-seekers living in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, have tested positive for the coronavirus and are being isolated from other migrants, the lead medical director told Border Report on Tuesday.

Helen Perry, executive director of Global Response Management (GRM), which provides free medical care to the thousands of migrants living in the outdoor encampment across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, said GRM administered antibody tests within the past two days and found that all five migrants have COVID-19. But subsequent PCR tests administered by the Mexican state officials in Tamaulipas returned negative results for three of the migrants, and they are waiting for results on the two others, she said.

Perry would not release the names, genders, or ages of the patients, but said the initial results were returned two days ago and it could take several days to get the PCR results. In the meantime, all five patients have been isolated in a separate area of the camp and GRM is conducting contact tracing to determine all the family and friends with whom the patients have come in contact and who should also be isolated.

The Global Response Management medical trailer is seen on Jan. 17 near a line of hanging clothes and tents at the migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We take an extremely cautious approach and we continue to treat these patients as if they have COVID,” Perry said via phone. “Everyone right now is asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic.”

Perry said GRM has set up separate isolation areas for those suspected of having the virus and are awaiting test results; for those with confirmed tests of COVID-19, and for those who need treatment GRM has built a 20-bed tent hospital.

Despite months of worry, however, Perry said the camp has remained “COVID-free.” Part of that could be due to measures that were put in place by Mexican officials and volunteer organizations that now restrict camp visitors, including limiting access by volunteers from South Texas bringing supplies and food, as well as a fence that has been built around the tent, which is now monitored by guards.

But news of coronavirus cases had officials worried on Tuesday as they isolate and wait to see if more migrants in the camp show any symptoms.

“In populations like this you have to be very, very aggressive to keep it from being widespread,” Perry said. “At this point, it’s really not if, it’s a when” there will be more cases.

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Many migrant families have been waiting for nearly a year in the tent encampment as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which requires them to remain in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings. But since March 20, the Southwest border with Mexico has been closed and all U.S. immigration court hearings have been suspended indefinitely.

There had been upwards of 3,000 migrants prior to the pandemic, but now there are about 1,500 remaining, after many families took buses supplied by Mexican officials to the southern part of the country.

Andrea Rudnik is in charge of volunteers for the nonprofit group Team Brownsville. She is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Andrea Rudnik, who is in charge of volunteers at the Matamoros camp for the nonprofit group Team Brownsville, said in the past few days the camp has received five migrant families from Haiti, a country from where they haven’t received migrants, she said. Team Brownsville is paying to host two of the families at a nearby hotel because of camp concerns that the families could be infected. The other three families are living in an area for new arrivals where they screen migrants for symptoms, she said.

“It’s going to happen. We’re going to get cases in the encampment. We know it,” Rudnik said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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