EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — Thousands of maquiladora factory workers from the border city of Reynosa, Mexico, are being vaccinated against COVID-19 in McAllen, Texas, in a new binational program that has the blessing of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and that uses vaccine that is about to expire, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez announced.

The first 500 factory workers were given the one-shot dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Wednesday, and 1,000 more were expected to be bussed into McAllen and vaccinated today. Altogether at least 3,000 of the 188,000 maquiladora workers in Reynosa, Mexico, are expected to get the shots, Cortez said.

The vaccinations come as the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas is reporting rising coronavirus cases, as well as a jump in COVID-19 cases in South Texas. And officials say this is a way to help preserve a vital economic engine that both cities — and states — rely on for revenue.

“We view this as a smart economic move aimed at restoring one of our regions biggest economic industries: the maquiladora industry,” Cortez said on Wednesday afternoon during a news conference in which he was flanked by U.S. and Mexican officials.

The workers are brought via buses from Reynosa over the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge to the U.S. side of the port of entry where licensed healthcare workers from the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services department climb on board to give them shots. Then the workers return to Mexico without ever stepping on U.S. soil.

Current federal law prevents U.S. officials from giving any type of vaccine in a foreign country. All of the vaccines that are used are near expiration and officials said there is plenty of doses for any U.S. citizen who wants a shot and they are not taking away from U.S. supplies.

“This program is taking leftover vaccines soon to expire and vaccinating maquila workers before the vaccines are destroyed,” Cortez said. “No U.S. citizen will be denied any vaccines and anyone who wants one can get one.”

McAllen Commissioner Pepe Cabeza de Vaca (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Similar cross-border vaccination programs in other Southwest border cities have been successfully vaccinating maquiladora workers in San Diego, El Paso and Brownsville, Texas.

“We recognize and know about the importance of restoring our cross-border economic activity back to normal,” McAllen Commissioner Pepe Cabeza de Vaca said.

Trade and commerce in the region has taken a hit since travel restrictions were implemented in March 2020 under the Trump administration, which prevents non-essential workers from entering the United States in order to control the spread of coronavirus.

Cars wait to cross south into Mexico on June 2, 2021, at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Maquiladora workers are considered essential workers, however much retail trade and shopping revenue, as well as revenue from international bridges, have dropped significantly as long as the restrictions remain.

Leaders throughout the border have been calling for travel restrictions to be lifted but, so far, the Biden administration has not indicated whether that will happen this month.

But, a sudden jump in coronavirus cases have officials worried — on both sides of the border.

On Monday, Hidalgo County reported a 38% increase in the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19. And that same day local hospitals reported a 50% increase in the number of people admitted into intensive care units due to the virus, Cortez said.

A county-wide vaccination campaign has reported a majority of residents have gotten the shots, but two dozen people who are fully vaccinated still have tested positive for the virus.

On Thursday, Hidalgo County officials reported the first case of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eddie Olivarez reiterated that everyone should get the vaccine.

He added that, ironically, a majority of the ventilator tubing used to help COVID patients in hospitals is produced in Reynosa, Mexico, and keeping that workforce healthy, so coronavirus patients can be treated nationwide, is tantamount.

Consul de Mexico Froylan Yescas Cedillo, in Spanish, expressed his sincere appreciation and gratitude to American officials for offering vaccines to workers in Reynosa and called it an “extraordinary gesture” and said they were undoubtedly saving many lives.

In answer to a question by Border Report, he said approximately half of the maquiladora workers in Reynosa are vaccinated.

There are 210 manufacturing plants in Reynosa and 155 companies that employ 188,000 workers. In 2020, $15 billion in importations from Reynosa were brought into the United States from maquiladora plants in Reynosa.

“Reynosa is not another country. It’s the south side of a major metropolitan area,” said Keith Patridge, CEO of the nonprofit McAllen Economic Development Corporation, which recruits companies to the region.

“This is just another example where we can help those managers and those workers in those plants to protect themselves from this virus and hopefully be able to continue to operate and be productive members and continue to allow us to grow our economy,” Patridge said.