El Paso begins administering COVID-19 vaccines to Juarez workers


Leaders hope to reach 'regional herd immunity' to bring about end to border travel restrictions

TORNILLO, Texas (Border Report) – More than 1,000 Juarez maquiladora workers got a COVID-19 shot at the Marcelino Serna port of entry on Tuesday, part of a binational effort to bring about regional herd immunity in the El Paso-Juarez area.

Buses began arriving at the border crossing in Tornillo at 7 a.m., with the Juarez residents being escorted to a “neutral” area of the port where El Paso County workers administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said 500 shots were administered by 8:40 a.m., with the goal of vaccinating 1,500 Mexican citizens by the end of the day. The county expects to vaccinate between 30,000 and 50,000 employees of the U.S.-run plants in Juarez in the next few weeks.

A maquiladora worker receives the COVID-19 vaccine on July 6, 2021 at the Marcelino Serna port of entry in Tornillo, Texas. (Courtesy El Paso County)

“We keep talking about regional approach to issues and crisis, I hope this lets people know that it can be done,” Samaniego said.

County officials aren’t just being altruistic with their vaccine stockpile – El Paso has already fully vaccinated 65.9 percent of its population 12 years and older and partially vaccinated 76.6 percent – but also trying to convince the federal government to roll back non-essential border land travel restrictions.

The restrictions have been in place since March 2020 and deprived Downtown merchants of their Mexican customers. Some merchants along South El Paso and Stanton streets have told Border Report they’ve lost between 50 percent and 90 percent of their customers. Many shops that closed at the start of the restrictions never reopened.

“They’re going to look at whether or not we have herd immunity on both sides. They’re not just going to open thinking it’s going to be OK,” Samaniego said. “It sends a message that we can do it, it sends a message these programs work and that if we do open, we will figure out other ways” to keep vaccinating Mexican citizens.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said she’s pushing the White House to reauthorize cross-border land travel for shopping and family visits, but concerns like the new COVID-19 Delta variant remain.

“It’s spreading globally at a fairly quick rate; it’s concerning physicians and health experts. So, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure everyone in our region gets vaccinated as quickly as possible,” she said. “Events like this, efforts like this essentially benefit us because if we can create regional herd immunity then we can, as soon as possible, reopen the border.”

Escobar said she filed a bill (The Binational Health Strategies Act) creating a blueprint for the U.S. to manage future international health contingencies.

“I know we will have future pandemics and health crises. So, it is really important to me that the federal government creates binational collaboration and agreements so we build on successes that we learned from past failures and that we create plans moving forward that will protect our region,” she said.

Buses carry maquiladora workers from Juarez to the Marcelino Serna port of entry to receive COVID-19 vaccines July 6, 2021, in Tornillo, Texas. (Courtesy El Paso County)

Maquiladoras are the principal employer in Juarez, with a payroll in excess of 320,000, said Fabiola Luna, president of Index, the Juarez Maquiladora Association. Of those, 100,000 have received COVID-19 shots in Juarez.

“In Juarez, the maquiladora industry is the basis of the economy. Since the beginning of the pandemic they have made efforts to protect the health of the community and contribute medical supplies,” Luna said. “Now that we have this opportunity, it’s very important for them to send the workers that are still missing the vaccine because the human resource is the most important part of the maquiladoras production process.”

Twenty-five maquiladora plants are participating in the binational vaccination program and absorbing the cost of the vaccines for their workers in the form of reimbursement to El Paso County.

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