Mexico confirms 1st virus case at Texas border migrant camp

Border Report

Restaurant that serves asylum-seekers had 2 workers test positive; meal distribution suspended

HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — One person has tested positive for the coronavirus and 14 others currently are in isolation at a migrant camp in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, officials told Border Report on Friday.

The person who Mexican officials confirmed has COVID-19 has already been moved away from the camp and is being treated at a special coronavirus facility, which is run by Doctors Without Borders, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Workers with Global Response Management (GRM), an NGO that offers free medical services at the camp, said that 14 others are currently in isolation while waiting for results from PCR tests administered by the Tamaulipas Department of Health.

“The person is no longer in the camp. It was somebody who was newly arrived and put in quarantine by GRM and tested by city health and came out positive so the person was transferred,” Pimentel said.

Sam Bishop, of GRM, confirmed the COVID-19 patient had been moved and said the 14 who are in quarantine are in a secure back area of the camp near a field hospital that was specifically built to house coronavirus patients.

“They’re in an isolation area associated with the field hospital,” Bishop said Friday via phone. “None of them are in critical condition.”

The tent hospital has the capacity to hold 20 patients and was opened in April in case of an onslaught of coronavirus in the camp. Bishop said the hospital is not allowed to treat COVID-19 patients from outside the camp under an agreement with Mexican officials.

Last month, five migrants from the camp had tested positive for COVID-19 on a rapid antibody test administered at the field hospital, but subsequent PCR tests administered by the health department in Tamaulipas returned negative.

This is the first positive case of COVID-19 at the migrant camp to be confirmed by Mexican authorities using a PCR test, Pimentel said.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, at a camp where over 1,300 asylum-seeking migrants live in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Right now, it’s very critical because obviously the virus is possibly in the camp and so the work that GRM is doing is to monitor and isolate and determine where they (cases) are,” Pimentel said. “The effort is there to try to control it as much as possible, to track who comes in contact with it and anyone who comes in contact with any of those persons.”

That’s not easy in a camp of 1,300 asylum seekers who live in tents on a muddy field in what once was a city park located on the banks of the Rio Grande across from Brownsville, Texas. Most of the migrants have been here for the better part of this past year, since the Trump administration last July implemented the remain in Mexico policy formally called Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires them to wait in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings.

The Southwest border has been closed since March 20 to travel and to anyone seeking asylum due to the coronavirus pandemic, and all U.S. immigration court proceedings also have been temporarily halted.

New arrivals at the camp are quarantined and tested for the coronavirus. The person who was found positive through the PCR test is a new arrival who was immediately removed, Pimentel said.

Asylum-seekers are seen sweeping outside their tents in early February 2020 before the threat of COVID-19 struck the camp where 3,000 people lived at the time across from Brownsville, Texas. Now about 1,300 migrants live in the camp, volunteers say. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Mexican restaurant workers contract COVID-19

Volunteers with Team Brownsville, the organization that helps to provide meals and supplies to the camp, on Thursday were told that two workers in a Mexican restaurant that the volunteers pay to provide hot meals daily for the migrants have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mike Benavides, a founding member of Team Brownsville, told Border Report that the restaurant served its last meal on Friday morning — a breakfast for 1,300. The restaurant has since been told not to cook any more meals for the next two weeks and must sanitize and show proof that all workers are free of the virus before returning to supply meals to the camp.

“As of this morning, the restaurant is closed for two weeks. As far as our end, we’re going to continue to fund them, it’s like a paid vacation — a time for them to completely sanitize,” Benavides said.

Benavides said the restaurant could resume cooking for the migrants on July 27 but only after proving it is sanitary and no workers have the virus.

A homemade stove is seen on Jan. 17, 2020, inside a tent of a migrant family living in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In the meantime, the migrants will have to cook all of their own meals. Most have built stoves in the mud and are proficient at cooking soups and stews. Benavides said the volunteers have already started delivering a large supply of rice, beans and chicken that they can use to make meals at the camp.

“They will survive without us but they won’t survive without our supplies,” Benavides said, adding that volunteers still plan to visit the outside of the camp to provide migrants with moral support. “Just to see us, to know we’re invested, that we care.”

The City of Matamoros has had 106 coronavirus-related deaths, so far, and numbers grow daily.

“I am concerned for the camp mostly for the welfare of the people and I’m afraid once this gets out of hand this will be devastating for the people,” Pimentel said. “The virus is spreading so fast everywhere.”

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