BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — At least 17 asylum-seekers who are living in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and have been isolated from the 3,000 people who live in close quarters there, medical authorities told Border Report.

Helen Perry is seen on Dec. 22, 2019, at the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where her group, Global Response Management, offers free medical aid to asylum-seekers. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Helen Perry, a nurse practitioner who runs Global Response Management, a nonprofit that has offered free medical aid to the camp since last fall, said it’s not definitive whether the patients have the coronavirus because she doesn’t yet have COVID-19 diagnostic testing equipment, something her organization has been trying to get American and Mexican officials to allow across the Rio Grande.

“We have 17 cases of clinically-suspicious coronavirus,” Perry said via phone on Tuesday evening from the camp where she oversees a medical trailer. “It’s not a surprise. Testing is very limited here.”

Perry said the first cases began showing signs on March 12 and without proper testing mechanisms they began quarantining those with symptoms in special tents set up near the rear of the tent encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande.

“Out of an abundance of caution we’ve gone through the process of isolating them and making sure families have masks and hand sanitizers,” Perry said.

“Out of an abundance of caution we’ve gone through the process of isolating them and making sure families have masks and hand sanitizers.”

Helen Perry, director of Global Response Management in Matamoros, Mexico

Perry’s organization is in the process of building a 20-bed hospital tent specifically designed to help COVID-19 patients. Her group has scheduled meetings with Mexican officials this week to hopefully get the green-light to begin bringing necessary equipment, she said.

Perry said the need is especially urgent right now with the current onslaught of patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms that she said are prevalent among coronavirus patients.

Migrant patients visit the Global Response Management medical trailer at the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, on Dec. 22, 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Matamoros, a city of 450,000 people has reported 12 cases, so far, but lacks ventilators and ICU equipment for an outbreak, Perry said. Her organization’s planned hospital tent is designed to help isolate and treat not only the asylum-seekers, but also local residents, she said.

“Everything has been staged in Brownsville. Everything is ready to cross. But we need permission from the Matamoros mayor’s office, who has been very generous in working with us to try and get everything crossed over,” Perry said.

About 3,000 migrants live in close quarters in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, as seen in this Jan. 20, 2020 photo. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Migrant advocates have long feared that a contagious disease like COVID-19 could sweep through the close quarters of the camp where migrants live for months in tents and often on dirt floors. The majority are from Central American countries and are forced to remain in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program while they await their U.S. immigration court proceedings.

But all immigration court cases have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the earliest date cases have been reset to mid-May.

Andrea Rudnik, who runs volunteer operations for the nonprofit group Team Brownsville, said the migrants who have chosen to stay know it will be a long wait, and they are reliant upon volunteers for food and supplies.

Andrea Rudnik is in charge of volunteers for the nonprofit group Team Brownsville. She is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

For the past year, Rudnik has crossed the Gateway International Bridge daily from her home in Brownsville, Texas, to help the asylum-seekers at the camp. But due to this pandemic, she has not visited the camp in three weeks — the longest stretch she has ever gone without seeing the migrants, she said. Volunteers with her organization and the nonprofit group Angry Tias & Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley are still crossing and taking supplies, however, it is not as frequently to avoid possibly taking the virus, or picking it up there, she said.

Rudnik said in the interim, the organizations have hired local restaurants in Matamoros to supply breakfast and dinner meals for the camp right now.

“There are people crossing infrequently. We’re certainly not going into the encampment like we were,” Rudnik said.

Over the Easter weekend, there had been reports that Mexican officials were ordering the asylum-seekers to relocate to a pavilion they are constructing about 4 miles from the border, but the migrants were never forced to move, Rudnik said.

It’s unclear for what that facility will be used, though some speculate it could be turned into a large quarantine location if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 patients.

Elsewhere in South Texas, the City of Laredo on Wednesday reported two more COVID-19 deaths — two women ages 93 and 63 — bringing the total to 10, and 239 cases in the town of 250,000.

Hidalgo County on Wednesday reported its second death, bringing its total cases to 225.

Cameron County has 239 cases, after it reported an additional 23 cases on Tuesday.

Starr County has had 7 cases, and the county judge earlier this week extended their emergency disaster declaration until May 18.

For a complete list of cases by Texas counties click here.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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