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Horowitz: Medical directors in Texas border counties: We’re treating patients from Mexico

"We in McAllen Medical are receiving many patients from Mexico."

Who would have thought it: That when a neighboring country without stable medical care gets hit by the virus, anyone with the ability to come here would seek care in our hospitals when they get sick?

I've written a six-part series detailing how the border counties have a worse crisis than anywhere else in the country because of a mix of cross-border travel, medical tourism, and dual citizens traveling back and forth. You can read the series here, here, here, here, here, and here. Until now we have seen remarkable data that shows the the timing and severity of the surge in relation to the sister cities and states in Mexico. California hospital directors have gone on the record admitting that they have been treating patients from Mexico. Now we have on-the-record proof that this is happening in Texas as well.

The numbers are truly extraordinary. On Sunday, 42% of all deaths reported in Texas were in border counties, even though those counties account for just 9% of the state's population and are generally much less dense than the counties closer to the major population centers. The positivity rate of testing is almost twice as high in Hidalgo County (border) as in Harris County (Houston). Since June 1, Hidalgo County's cases have grown by 1,800%, while Harris County's cases have grown by 346%. Now we know why.

On Friday, KVEO's Sydney Hernandez, who has been covering cross-border news for years, reported that "doctors say they are not only treating Rio Grande Valley residents but people who crossed the border seeking medical attention."

"One of the factors is the border, we in McAllen Medical are receiving many patients from Mexico, they are coming in because their resources over there are also limited so they are coming into our area seeking medical attention and by law we have to provide it," said Dr. Ivonne Lopez, medical director of McAllen Hospital Group at McAllen Medical Center. "The patients that cross the border say 'we don't have hospital space over there, the oxygen is gone, we don't have medications so we cross the border,' that's the situation in the border."

Hernandez also quotes a Hidalgo County health official attesting to the fact that hospitals in Texas' sister cities in Mexico are overrun and dysfunctional. This is why we are getting the most vulnerable people and serious cases from Mexico. That is the only logical explanation for why these counties seem to have more deaths per capita than any place in the country, especially with comparable population densities.

It's truly astounding that nobody in the state or federal government thought to either block medical tourism, issue mandatory quarantines for travel to and from Mexico, or at least set up field hospitals in Mexico at the border rather than burden our own hospitals and risk the danger of spread within hospitals of the most serious virus cases coming into our country. Americans were locked down under the premise of avoiding a strain on the hospitals, yet Mexican nationals were able to walk in.

In March, our government issued a travel ban at the border, but it categorically exempted dual citizens and Mexican nationals who hold green cards, as well as those with other visas and border crossing cards if they were deemed essential. In addition, travel for medical treatment was also exempted from the ban.

If our government believes it is our responsibility to treat these people in American hospitals, then rather than blaming Americans for spreading the virus and demanding more lockdowns, officials should own up to the source of the most serious cases. Every day, we see liberals lament that America is experiencing a much longer epidemic than Europe. But Europe didn't have a Mexico on its border, where governments not only failed to fully halt cross-border travel but openly invited people from a country with subpar medical care to enter and seek treatment. Green card holders should never have been allowed to come in while Americans are locked down. Even dual citizens should have just been given the option to come in one time at the beginning, not to travel back and forth in middle of the epidemic.

In addition to those who reside in Mexico, there are likely many Americans who have gotten sick because they traveled to Tamaulipas during the worst weeks in late May and early June. In deference to the strong cross-border bond (more so than in any other part of the border), there were never any warnings against travel or mandatory quarantines issued for those who returned. But should that cross-border culture have been accommodated more than the cross-border culture between Pennsylvania and New Jersey/New York in March and April or between Texas and Louisiana when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent out state troopers to enforce a quarantine on travel from Louisiana?

Now, the Hidalgo County government has issued a stay-at-home order for its residents, after failing to simply enforce a quarantine against travel to Mexico.

Just how far has the spread from Mexico gone? We don't know for sure, but once we know that Mexican nationals have sought treatment in the border counties and we know border counties, which have tiny hospitals, have been transferring patients to other cities, it's inconceivable that a certain number of serious patients in ICUs in other parts of Texas are not from the border.

The Texas Tribune reported last week that sick patients from the border town of Harlingen have been medically evacuated as far north as Amarillo.

The trip from the Rio Grande Valley to the Panhandle is too far to make in a helicopter. So earlier this week, when an intubated COVID-19 patient left Harlingen,nearthe state's southernmost tip, for Amarillo, its northernmost metro area, hospital officials sent a fixed-wing airplane.

The South Texas hospital, inundated with a surge of sick and dying coronavirus patients, had tried sending the severely ill patient to closer facilities — but Northwest Texas Healthcare System was "the first hospital between them and us" that had the capacity to take the patient, said Dr. Brian Weis, the Amarillo hospital's chief medical officer.

Logic dictates that the reason why some of the closer major cities, such as Houston and San Antonio, are full is because of the border problem. Yes, the border towns have less medical infrastructure, so transfers would be natural. But what is not natural, as proven by viral patterns throughout the country, is for rural counties to get more deadly COVID-19 cases than the major cities in a given state. This has created an inverse pyramid of strain on the state's hospital system.

All because the only thing that can never be locked down during a national shutdown during an epidemic to stop the viral spread is travel across the Mexican border, especially if they are coming with COVID-19.

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