JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Like many El Paso residents, Aaron de la Rosa has family on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and likes to keep in touch with them.

“I probably come here once a month to check up on family and then I return home,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made him more cautious but he continues to cross into Mexico. On Thursday, he was among dozens of motorists who came up to a checkpoint set up by Mexican authorities south of the Bridge of the Americas to screen visitors from the United States for signs of COVID-19. Juarez police asked him if he was experiencing a cough, headaches or difficulty breathing, and a paramedic took his temperature.

“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s good because right now you need to be as safe as possible. Sometimes you don’t know all the symptoms you may get. It’s good that they give you information, that they check you out so you don’t actually spread it.”

The state of Chihuahua across the border from Texas and New Mexico has set up eight checkpoints on its side of U.S. ports of entry in an effort to prevent the kind of crisis that’s ravaging places to the north like New York City, where COVID-19 cases topped 50,000 on Thursday, with more than 1,500 dead.

“We live next door to a country that, as of today, has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world,” said Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, Chihuahua Health Authority in Juarez. “This puts in a situation of risk. This makes Juarez vulnerable.”

The danger is imminent, he added, as El Paso across the border has gone from a handful of cases last week to 68 as of Wednesday night. Juarez, the city he’s charged to protect, has only seven cases. In all of Mexico, only 1,500 cases have been confirmed.

Valenzuela said Juarez has far fewer cases than other large Mexican cities for a number of reasons: It’s geographically isolated and few of its citizens travel to Europe or Asia where the coronavirus struck early. He figures that gave the city about a month’s head start to prepare for the pandemic.

A pickup coming from the United States pulls up to the coronavirus checkpoint south of the Bridge of the Americas port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. (photo Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

But the clock is ticking, hence the checkpoints. Mexican citizens who work part of the year in the United States traditionally come home for Easter and the strong blood ties mean El Pasoans will keep crossing the border despite stay-at-home orders issued on both sides of the border.

“It’s good that they’re checking for sick people (at the border). If I feel sick, I’m going to stay home, I wouldn’t come here if I was sick,” said Carlos Hernandez, an El Paso resident who crossed into Juarez on Thursday to buy blood pressure pills “and maybe get cleaning supplies and alcohol gel” that are in shortage north of the border.

A Juarez paramedic staffs a secondary inspection station near the Bridge of the Americas port of entry, where motorists suspected of being ill are sent to for additional COVID-19 screening. (photo Julian Resendiz)

The Mexican government on Wednesday urged its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to the United States and those who are working or now residing in the United States to obey stay-at-home orders.

“It’s recommended for them (Mexicans living abroad) to stay at home and avoid international travel, including to Mexico. It is recommended to those Mexicans with permanent residence in the United States who want to be reunited with their relatives to temporarily stop non-essential travel to our country,” the Mexican Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Valenzuela echoed those feelings. “My message is the same for people (in Juarez) or on the other side of the border. Avoid going out. Stay home, stay home, stay home. When you stay home, you are freeing up a hospital bed for someone who will really need it,” he said. “Staying home and observing social distancing reduces the severity of the epidemic and takes a burden off our health care system.”

Last week, Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada said his city was preparing for a worst-case scenario by procuring N95 surgical masks for health workers, taking stock of available hospital beds and urging state and federal officials to procure additional ventilators.

But he and Valenzuela say the success of those efforts depends on people observing social distancing and obeying stay-at-home rules.

“I have a vision that next month Chihuahua residents will stay home, will avoid handshakes, wash their hands frequently and maintain common areas clean. We will keep the spread of (COVID-19) dispersion low,” Valenzuela said.

But just in case, Mexican health authorities are frantically trying to shore-up their healthcare system to keep the coronavirus mortality rate low.

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