Money sought to ramp up testing, contact tracing at border COVID-19 ‘hotspots’

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American lawmakers, Mexican ambassador to U.S. discuss tapping into NADBank money, standarizing restrictions

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Border cities, whose manufacturing plants are key to the American industry, are becoming hot spots for COVID-19.

El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico on Friday reported their highest one-day increases so far, with 233 and 428 new cases, respectively. San Diego County this week recorded more than 300 cases four out of five days while Tijuana, Mexico surpassed the 800-death mark (827) and is up to 2,668 confirmed infections.

Tijuana and Juarez have the largest concentration of U.S.-run factories (maquiladoras) supplying the American automotive, electronics and medical industry. They also lead their states in COVID-19 contagion.

COVID-19 cases in Tijuana (graphic courtesy State of Baja California)

That’s one of the reasons why a group of U.S. lawmakers is pushing for a binational strategy to cap the spread of coronavirus on the border and has started a dialogue with Mexican Ambassador to the United States Martha Barcena.

The talk centered around effectively reducing contagion on these hotspots and getting their leaders to apply for money from the North American Development Bank and other international organizations for more testing and contact tracing.

“We need to collaborate closely with Mexico, not just by sharing best practices, not just with communication, but we have to have a very robust testing strategy on either side of the border,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who hosted the meeting.

El Paso, for instance, outlined an aggressive goal of testing 5% of its population by the end of June. This was paramount in a city with numerous Latino populations with widespread underlying health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension. El Paso met that goal with weeks to spare. Juarez, according to estimates, has tested less than 0.5% of its 1.5 million people.

“The best approach may be to focus first on the El Paso-Juarez and the California area, figure out binational best practices, which ultimately may come down to resources. Mexico is not testing at the same level that we are because they don’t have the same resources to do it,” she said.

These “sister cities” divided by an international border also need to follow similar regulations or else risk passing the disease to one another in a vicious circle.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas

“We have to have restrictions that mirror one another,” Escobar said. “It doesn’t make sense to have different standards in a binational community where there is so much essential travel occurring primarily because of trade.”

El Paso, for instance, began its economic reopening weeks ahead of Juarez’s and now, like the rest of Texas, is having to cut back on business occupancy rates and closing bars because of a COVID-19 spike.

Escobar said Texas erred in putting the economic recovery ahead of setting solid protective health measures in place.

“Unfortunately, many of us predicted this would happen. There were many experts who warned against reopening too quickly without robust testing and tracing in place. Then we reopen and possibly have to close down again, which frankly is worse for business,” she said.

She cited the case of bars, which had to invest in heavily sanitizing their locales, hiring and training employees, procuring personal protective equipment for them and then being forced to close again on Friday.

“We have to do this right. If we don’t take care of the health component, our economy will continue to suffer. We have to face that head-on,” she said.

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