Experts call for expanded coronavirus testing in minority communities along border


African-Americans, Hispanics at higher risk of contracting virus due to pre-existing conditions, shared living arrangements

Kansas National Guard member Roy Manns, from Topeka, Kan., monitors Abbott COVID-19 testing machines at a drive-thru testing site Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Dodge City, Kan. Kansas Army and Air Force medical guard units have tested 100-200 people daily since setting up the testing site nearly a month ago in an attempt to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Medical experts are calling for expanded testing in minority-majority communities where people are more at risk of catching COVID-19.

This includes cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, where older adults may have medical conditions making them more vulnerable to the virus, where social distancing is difficult in large households and where cross-border interaction complicates an effective managed response.

“Essentially, we face a double-whammy as a region,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “Communities like ours with majority-minority populations are as vulnerable as people in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. You add that we are across a country that has not prioritized testing and we face a double challenge.”

El Paso in the past week has been ramping up testing to include asymptomatic patients for the first time in an effort to screen 5% of its population for the coronavirus at the end of June. It has tested 2.5% of the people so far, with neighboring Doña Ana County, N.M., already at a 5% rate, Escobar said Monday during a Facebook Live conference.

But testing continues to be very limited across the border in Juarez, Mexico. That city of 1.5 million people has tested less than 0.5% of its population, according to figures released by state health officials, who themselves say testing well below where they’d like.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (top right) hosts a Zoom teleconference on COVID-19 on the border with a pair of national medical experts. (photo from Facebook Live)

“We really do have to look at our community with a regional perspective,” Escobar said. “My hope is that as a region we layout an international, tri-state strategy. We share the same air, we share families. We are a fluid place — which is wonderful — but with that come some challenges, especially during a time of pandemic.”

Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College and an HIV researcher, said testing should approach the expected frequency rate of infection in the population. So if 10% of those tested are coming out positive, that should be a community’s testing goal.

“Testing should be happening at a large scale,” Hildreth said. “Clearly, the level of testing right now is not sufficient. And given the vulnerability of the population, I believe that testing should be happening in a large scale in your region to identify the positives as quickly as possible and protect others from getting infected.”

What makes minority-majority communities more vulnerable to the virus are high rates of pre-existing conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma, among others, he said.

Hispanics are more than twice as likely to have Type 2 diabetes (17%), for instance, than non-Hispanic whites (8%), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In addition,the lack of financial resources may force people to live with relatives. In these “multi-generational” households, younger people may be out and about, catch COVID-19 with no apparent harm to themselves but then spread it to vulnerable older family members.

This accounts for a disproportionate number of deaths from COVID-19 among minorities like African-Americans, compared to the rest of the population, Hildreth said.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said he’s hopeful testing will continue to expand across the country as new test kits are approved and become cheaper.

“Testing capacity won’t be an issue” by fall, with the cost of each test expected to fall to $5, he said. Still, logistics will remain a challenge especially for businesses that employ hundreds of workers.

Both experts said COVID-19 will remain a challenge worldwide until a vaccine is developed.

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The mission of is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.