Forced to wait in Mexico, migrant medical professionals become asset in fight against COVID-19

Health

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — A Mexican man recently deported from the United States stands at the gates of Holy Spirit Church in south Juarez, seeking refuge.

Before letting him in, to rest and recover his bearings, the Rev. Hector Trejo summons Mabel. The registered nurse from Cuba comes out wearing a white protective suit and plastic face shield and sprays the new arrival with a water and alcohol solution. Then she takes him to a lavatory and waits for him to thoroughly wash his hands.

Finally, she and a fellow health worker from El Salvador sit him by a table where they ask him basic health questions and take down his personal information.

“You do feel a little nervous because we are in the middle of a contingency (the COVID-19 pandemic),” said Mabel, who asked that her last name not be used. “But the vocation of a nurse and other health professionals is to help. It feels good to help others.”

Mabel, who has been in Juarez for the past six months, is one of the dozens of nurses, lab technicians, chemists, biologists and even some doctors who arrived in Juarez during last year’s migrant surge. Returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program to wait indefinitely for a resolution to their asylum claim, these health professionals have suddenly become a valuable asset in the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

A total of 185 Mexican doctors, nurses and nursing assistants in the state of Chihuahua have been sent home after testing positive for the coronavirus. Pregnant nurses and elderly physicians have also been placed on leave and the state has set up a hotline in its search for trained volunteers to fill gaps at government hospitals were coronavirus patients are being funneled to.

That’s where the migrant professionals come in, says Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua Population Council, which coordinates care for migrants.

“The health emergency has brought challenges, but it also has made us come together, locals and foreigners, for this one purpose of helping the community through the pandemic,” Valenzuela said.

The coronavirus pandemic is yet to peak in Juarez, where 24 people have died from the virus in the past three days, 466 cases have been confirmed and thousands more could be infected but have not been tested.

State officials have approached Cuban and Central American health professionals stuck in Juarez under the MPP program to gauge if they’d be willing to apply their skills to care for COVID-19 victims in Juarez. Valenzuela said the response has been overwhelming.

“There is good disposition on their part. We’ve had two meetings and 20 people have expressed willingness to participate. We would be happy to utilize their skill and, above all, their willingness to help,” he said.

The state health director in Juarez, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, said the Cuban and Central American doctors, nurses and other health workers will probably be called in once secondary hospitals for the treatment of COVID-19 patients are properly equipped. Juarez General Hospital is one such facility being prepared to back up the IMSS-35 and the ISSSTE hospitals as well as the Ministry of Health clinic, he said.

Already, nurse Mabel and others are volunteering their medical knowledge at shelters like Espiritu Santo, which has become the “funnel” facility for all new arrivals in Juarez.

The church near Juarez International Airport has set up living quarters so migrants just passing through can rest for a day or a few hours, and long-term living space to quarantine for up to two weeks those who are staying in the city.

“The church is always willing to serve, particularly in crisis situation. Our Christian duty is to help the community, whether they’d be local or foreigners,” said Trejo, who is a lawyer in addition to being an Anglican priest.

He said migrants help run the shelter out of their own free will. They cook, they clean and, more importantly, they’ve helped screen and “sanitize” newly arrived migrants during the pandemic.

“A lot of good work on behalf of migrants is being done here in Juarez, unlike other (Mexican) border cities. We didn’t know (the migrant wave of 2018-2019) was going to happen. But there has been great leadership and a great humanitarian attitude from state government and (private) organizations. That has made a difference,” Trejo said.

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