When New York and New Jersey were the epicenter of the serious coronavirus cases in March and April, nearly every state posted signs on highways requiring residents of those states to quarantine for 14 days. Yet no such order was given to those coming into Texas’ border counties, even as Tamaulipas, Mexico, became a hot zone in late May and early June. In fact, to this day, even as Texas has placed severe restrictions on its own citizens, there is still no closure of the international border. Why is cross-border travel more sacred than cross-state travel?
The pattern we are seeing now with the virus is remarkable. As cases rise, primarily as a result of universal testing and milder cases among younger people, deaths continue to plummet every week. However, there is one exception. We are seeing serious cases in border counties and even an increase in deaths. How is it that after America reached its peak in April, we are seeing higher deaths again – but only at the border? The answer is that cross-border travel is so pervasive that Americans likely brought back Mexico’s much later epidemic curve, which, unlike this current mild wave in the interior of our country, is more serious.
The border connection is irrefutable
Consider the following information a friend prepared on Twitter from the Texas dashboard data by county:
- Hidalgo County, Texas, which contains the main international border crossing in the Rio Grande Valley, experienced a 641% increase in cases per thousand residents from June 1 to July 2. Harris County (Houston), by comparison, experienced just a 167% increase, which is more in line with the rate of increase in testing.
- Hidalgo County recorded just 23 deaths from the beginning of March through June 23, but 34 deaths since June 24. Hidalgo composes just 2.9% of Texas’ population, yet accounted for 20% of the state’s deaths from June 30-July 2. On many days, it recorded more deaths than Dallas County. That is simply astounding, given that Dallas County is three times larger and five times denser. Based on everything we’ve seen throughout the country, unless there is some bizarre anomaly, the more densely populated county always suffers more deaths.
- Overall, 31.39% of total deaths in border counties since the beginning of the epidemic were reported in the last 10 days, compared to just 16% in Texas statewide. Put another way, 19.71% of all Texas deaths in last 10 days were reported in border counties, compared to just 10.04% before June 24.
- We are seeing the same trends in hospitalization as well.
- In the rest of the state and the country, most of the increase is due to universal testing in hospitals and discovering more people with COVID-19 who came in for other ailments. These are not serious cases. To illustrate the point, 25% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations among women ages 15-49, according to the CDC, have been pregnant women. This is a big reason why the increase over the past month (over April and May) is so superficial. My wife gave birth in April but was not tested. That is enough to account for the general increase in hospitalizations, but not the insane increase of 1100% in Hidalgo County. Those are being driven by serious cases being brought over from Mexico’s first wave, which is more serious than what is being passed around in the rest of our country since June.
Why has the border changed in the past month?
The timing is remarkable. The average duration from infection to death with a COVID-19 case is about three weeks. Thus, the spike at the border occurred right as Mexico experienced its peak. https://twitter.com/kerpen/status/1279418850703020032
The main border county that receives the most cross-border traffic had zero deaths during the critical weeks after Texas’ May 1 reopening. There is therefore no way the reopening was the culprit of the recent spike. On the other hand, the timing matches up perfectly with the spike in Mexico:
- Last week, CNN reported how border hospitals were getting flooded with medical tourists from Mexico. “They’ll literally come to the border and call an ambulance,” said Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health in southern California.
The New York Times reported a similar dynamic on the Arizona border. “Border towns in Arizona are experiencing an increase in infections that health officials believe is tied to people coming in from Sonora state,” reported the Times on June 7.
CNN quoted a border academic as saying that “there just is not a wall for viruses at the border.” “The wall is an illusion, because the two sides are really woven together,” said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
It is definitely true that people on both sides, especially dual citizens, go back and forth to shop, work, or visit family on a daily or weekly basis. However, are they more interwoven than Americans living within America or in different states who were locked down from going to work or forced to quarantine after traveling from another state? Why was the border not closed, or at the very least, why did federal or state officials not require a 14-day quarantine for anyone who crossed the border?
Last week, I reported about the dual citizens or Mexican green card holders who came across for medical care after contracting serious cases of COVID-19. However, a more serious problem of widespread transmission could be the Americans living on our side of the border who blithely traveled back and forth throughout May and June, even after the virus in Mexico began surging and America’s epidemic was waning. At least those who came for care were likely brought straight to the hospital and hopefully were not responsible for mass community spread. The same cannot be said for those who unknowingly contracted the virus while going on daily shopping trips in Matamoros or Reynosa and crossed back into communities in Hidalgo and Cameroon Counties.
Matamoras and Reynosa, which border McAllen and Brownsville on the U.S. side respectively, are the biggest hot spots in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They are very popular destinations for cross-border traffic over the bridges. One Customs and Border Protection official told KVEO News two weeks ago that the public seemed to continue travelling back and forth, though at a lower rate than normal.
“Considering that there are travel restrictions, people just don’t seem to take them very seriously,” said Philip Barrera, a U.S. Customers and Border Protection officer.
Barrera says bridge traffic is down, but there doesn’t seem to be much enforcement in Mexico.
“From what we understand they have checkpoints, but they’re done on a random basis, this is what we hear from the traveling public and they’re not there all the time and obviously people take advantage of that,” said Barrera who says pedestrian traffic has gone down 35%-40% and vehicular traffic is down 50%.
What many who don’t follow the border will miss is that these cases are qualitatively worse than the ones we are seeing elsewhere in the country now, because they are likely from the first unattenuated strain from Mexico. Whereas most Texas hospital systems are lamenting how the media and politicians are overblowing the situation, the hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley are sounding the alarm.
Manny Vela, the CEO of Valley Baptist Health System, warned “that we are now at the point of grave concern.” Ten of 12 hospitals in Hidalgo, Cameron, and Starr Counties – the three counties bordering Mexico – are now on “diversion status.”
It makes sense that these cases in the border counties are more serious than elsewhere. San Diego officials were warning as early as the end of April that serious cases were coming over the border, not the mild ones we are seeing spread throughout most of the country now. “So, what we’re seeing now is an uptick in the number of U.S. citizens that are coming across the border and when they arrive here they’ve been in pretty bad shape. Critical cases,” said San Diego County District 3 Supervisor Kristin Gaspar to local ABC news on April 29.