South Texas COVID-19 cases spike on border with Mexico

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Fears the virus will infect a Mexican border tent encampment where thousands of asylum-seekers live

About 3,000 migrants live in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Grande across from Brownsville, Texas. The tents are on top of one another as seen in this Jan. 28 photo. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The number of cases of COVID-19 in two South Texas border counties dramatically spiked on Saturday night totaling five cases with the announcement of the first confirmed case in Hidalgo County and several in Cameron County, health officials said.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Saturday night announced that a coronavirus case was confirmed in McAllen, which is the largest city in the border county. That triggered the county to order the Hidalgo County Division of Emergency Management to go into a Level 1 Operational status, the county’s highest.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Saturday, March 21, 2020, announced the first case of COVID-19 in the South Texas county, which borders Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We knew this day was coming and we are prepared,” Cortez said in a statement. “This is a highly contagious disease and residents should not be surprised — or alarmed — that others in Hidalgo County will likely contract the virus.”

The news came after four cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Cameron County, including one in the city of Harlingen, one in Rancho Viejo, and two cases in Brownsville, which is that county’s largest city and borders the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Across from Brownsville in Matamoros, Mexico, about 3,000 migrants live in a tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge, where health officials have long feared this deadly novel virus could rapidly spread since the tents are spaced just feet apart.

Migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, wait for medical care on Nov. 11, 2019, provided by the nonprofit Global Response Management. The nonprofit is now planning to build a tent hospital facility to handle COVID-19 cases, should the virus strike the encampment. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The nonprofit Global Response Management this week, in an exclusive with Border Report, said that they had raised $500,000 to build a hospital tent facility and were only awaiting approval by the Mexican government to bring rapid COVID-19 tests across the international border.

EXCLUSIVE: Nonprofit to build tent hospital at
Mexican refugee cam

Also on Saturday, there were numerous reports on social media that the Mexican military had sent buses to the camp and was prepared to transport adults to the southern part of the state. Early reports indicated that only adults would be transported and advocates were concerned that many families would begin sending children alone over the bridge to claim asylum. The Department of Homeland Security has said it will accept unaccompanied children, but now that President Donald Trump has closed the border with Mexico to thwart the spread of the virus it is unclear whether these children will continue to be accepted.

U.S. Border Patrol has announced it is not processing migrants apprehended on the southern border, but will instead send them back to Mexico or their countries of origin.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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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.