Along the Border, the Population Is High Risk for Coronavirus, but Testing Is In Short Supply
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised that all those who need a coronavirus test “will get one,” but near the border tests are scarce, and the death toll is beginning to rise.
On Monday afternoon, paramedic Theresa Fitzpatrick inched her Dodge Dart through a brand new drive-in testing center for COVID-19 in the small South Texas border city of Edinburg, a dozen miles from the Rio Grande. She had been wracked for a week with a dry, hacking cough ever since picking up a patient who had just crossed the international bridge with similar symptoms.
But she hadn’t been able to get a test since seeing her doctor last week, until a local university opened up drive-thru testing sites in her home county on Monday.
“They haven’t been testing people, that’s the problem,” said Fitzpatrick, a mother of four who earns $16 an hour as a paramedic for a private EMS company. “It just seems like the forgotten man down here.”
Hours earlier, Dr. Martin Garza, a pediatrician and former president of the Hidalgo-Starr County Medical Society, spent his lunch break drafting a plea to border-area lawmakers for help finding more testing kits.
Garza noted that at-risk areas such as South Texas, with lower numbers of confirmed cases, are precisely where enhanced testing is needed to detect and prevent a fatal spread of the virus, as is unfolding in New York City, New Orleans and smaller cities like Athens, Georgia.
“We have all heard, ‘If (only) we had been able to test sooner,’” he wrote. “Well the ‘sooner’ is still available in our community.”
While many places across the country are struggling to get enough testing, the problems are magnified in the Rio Grande Valley. It has among the highest poverty rates in the state, nearly half of its residents don’t have health insurance and chronic health conditions are rife.
Two weeks ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised that all those who need a coronavirus test “will get one,” but public health officials, politicians and doctors up and down the Rio Grande say that hasn’t happened and they are scrambling to assemble sufficient testing kits. Hidalgo County, the largest in the Valley, is only able to process 20 government tests a day, officials said this week.
In the border city of Laredo, 80 miles upriver from the Rio Grande Valley, a cluster of residents died on four consecutive days starting Sunday, bringing the city’s COVID-19 death toll to five, just below that of the state’s largest city Houston as of Friday morning. The first four were women in their 60s to 97. The latest was a 43-year-old man. Health authorities say all five suffered from underlying health conditions.
Also troubling to local health leaders is that the highest percentage of the city’s 65 positive cases is the result of some form of community contact.
As Laredo reeled from the deaths, its Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo, announced its first two positive cases this week, including a 56-year-old man who had recently traveled to Dallas. Health experts believe cases in Mexico are vastly underreported because of almost nonexistent testing there.
Responding to the threat, some border cities took drastic steps, including setting up roadblocks to catch people violating orders to shelter in place and requiring masks inside public buildings.
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