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Health officials deny claims of migrants causing COVID surge

Public health experts say COVID is being spread by people who are unvaccinated, and by the Delta variant.
Posted at 10:19 PM, Aug 11, 2021

In the past few months, tens of thousands of migrants – mainly from countries in Central America – have crossed illegally into the U.S. in the busiest region, which has led Texas Republicans to conflate those crossings with the state's spike in COVID numbers – except those claims don't add up

A trail of anguish in La Joya, Texas. In Texas' Rio Grande Valley the U.S. Border Patrol says 210,000 people were detained and processed in the month of July - this after a busy June of 180,000. The high numbers are pushing cities in the valley to the brink.

"Just last week, we had to issue a disaster declaration because we still have some funding from the federal government for the purposes to assist. But we're running out," McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said.

The area is also becoming a COVID hot zone — and Republicans are pouncing on the Biden administration — but local health officials say these are baseless claims.

"Is it fair to say that the migrants are the cause of the pandemic? Absolutely not," said Dr. Ivan Melendez of Hidalgo County Health Authority.

In reality, the area's highest ranking public health authority says migrants tested had a 16 percent infection rate, roughly mirroring citizens in the valley.

"Is it fair to say that they're part of it as well as the unvaccinated deputations, the people unable to get the vaccine, the summer travel, the going back to school? I think they're one of many factors," Melendez said. "Is it a considerable contributing factor? Absolutely."

While admitting unaccompanied minors or families with children aged six and under, the federal government is sending everyone else back to Mexico under public health laws. Those allowed to stay are processed in U.S. Border Patrol custody and given masks. When they're released they're tested by charities and local authorities.

Sister Norma Pimentel runs the Catholic Respite Center in McAllen. It's a short-term way station where migrants can get their bearings before leaving to reunite with family across the U.S. 

"We need to continue to work and support each other in our response to correctly care for these immigrants while they're here in our community, so that we can care for them properly and make sure we are safe in our community," Pimentel said.

The charity tests everyone for COVID before admittance. Lately it has gotten so busy, it had to cap attendance.

Pimentel said, "I have seen an increasing number of people that are being dropped off to us more than we've ever seen before."

Things came to a head in late July when locals in La Joya, Texas complained about visibly sick migrants at a fast food restaurant.

"What was set out as facts was false," Pimentel said. "It's hard to correct that because now everybody fears the immigrants and they think they are spreading COVID when in reality, they are not."

But the social media-driven outcry prompted officials to change course and not allow the sick to quarantine at hotels.

"Now it's a little bit different," Mayor Villalobos said. "Now we're getting in excess of eighteen hundred. And then coupled with the fact that the COVID rate has gone from about four to five now to over 15 percent, they can't be moved. So we have a higher number of population, higher number of COVID. So they have to be isolated."

Instead of hotels, sick migrants will now be quarantining at a park, which is now an emergency tent camp.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Everardo Villarreal said, "This is a federal problem. This is not our problem. I'm not here for the immigrants. I'm being responsible and what I'm doing is to protect the safety and the health of residents that I represent, which are the residents of Hidalgo County."

As of Tuesday, 1,200 migrants – most of them COVID positive – were quarantining for two weeks. Hidalgo County expects 2,000 by the end of the week. But the open secret is this: once the federal government has released the migrants from custody – usually with a court date – no one has the authority to detain them if they're acting lawfully. 

One woman who did not want to be identified for safety reasons said her relations are in the camp. 

"I came to pick up my brother-in-law's family. It's the mom the dad and two kids," she said. "We want to just get them out so they can eat. Especially the two little kids."

Public health experts in Texas are echoing Hidalgo County's public health authority. The new arrivals are not driving the spike in COVID-19 in the Lone Star State. It's the unvaccinated and the Delta variant.

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