Surge raises suspicions migrants are propelling COVID-19 outbreaks

The large number of sick and unvetted migrants entering the country has raised fears among Republican governors that the Biden administration’s handling of the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is propelling COVID-19 outbreaks.

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and ally to former President Donald Trump, issued an executive order Wednesday to “reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in Texas by reducing the transportation of migrants throughout [the] state,” following reports of a 900% increase in sick migrants crossing the border through the Rio Grande Valley sector.

“The dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants who have made their way into our state, and we must do more to protect Texans from this virus and reduce the burden on our communities,” Abbott said on Wednesday.

The issue came to a head when migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 were placed in hotels in La Joya without local authorities’ knowledge.

TEXAS MIGRANT SHELTER SHUTS ITS DOORS, UNABLE TO KEEP UP WITH INFLUX OF MIGRANTS AND RISING COVID-19 CASES

“You have to understand that some of these places are so full, they don’t have anywhere else to put [the migrants], so they have to release them… They were released into our city, and no one told us,” La Joya, Texas police sergeant Manuel Casas said this week.

Catholic Charities started putting migrants up in hotels in the area, such as the Texas Inn & Suites in La Joya, Casas said. At first, the hotels did not station security guards to ensure that migrants did not leave the premises, and three of them did. A mother and her two daughters, who both looked sick but had not been tested for COVID-19 yet, went to a nearby burger joint next to the hotel without wearing masks, making employees uneasy. That is when the workers flagged down local police passing by, who stopped to investigate the situation and found that sick people had been staying in the adjacent hotel.

“We don’t have a number [for how many migrants in the hotel have tested positive for COVID-19], and we do not have a way of verifying if they are positive for [COVID-19]. It’s just their word,” Casas said. “We do know that the people the officer encountered showed signs [of infection] that we look for… it’s alarming, so we do have reason to believe that it’s true that they are positive.”

A nurse with the charity regularly monitors those migrants staying in the hotel, including some who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are at least visibly ill, twice a day. People staying there temporarily also cannot leave the property but are still receiving necessary medical care, according to an employee at the hotel.

The situation at the border has deteriorated to the extent that existing processes for managing the entry of illegal immigrants have broken down. The Catholic Charities respite center in downtown McAllen, Texas, buckled under the weight of record numbers of migrants crossing through this week. The center, where migrants released from federal custody are normally allowed to wait as they make travel plans to their final destinations across the country, had to close temporarily.

Other Republicans have sounded the alarm.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey also criticized the Biden administration’s border policies, including the rumblings that it will revoke the Title 42 policy implemented in March 2020, which gave the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authority to halt border crossings into the U.S. because of the threat of introducing communicable diseases into the U.S. The policy has blocked migrants from seeking asylum at the border since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s outrageous that the Biden-Harris administration is considering lifting Title 42 border COVID-19 restrictions on ILLEGAL immigration,” Ducey said last week. “Ending Title 42 will threaten the health and safety of Arizonans and all Americans. Our already broken border will explode — overwhelming border patrol, law enforcement, nonprofits, and health care professionals.”

Meanwhile, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican whose state has fully vaccinated less than half of its population, said on Tuesday that the recent spike in COVID-19 cases was linked to an influx of migrants coming from countries where vaccines are scarce.

​​”Part of the problem is the southern border is open, and we’ve got 88 countries that are coming across the border, and they don’t have vaccines, so none of them are vaccinated, and they’re getting dispersed throughout the country,” Reynolds said.

Still, public health officials said that the threat of migrants transmitting COVID-19 to Americans is small compared to the danger posed by lagging vaccination rates in the U.S. In Texas, about 51% of people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while less than 44% have been fully vaccinated, according to a tracker maintained by Bloomberg. A slightly larger share of Arizonans has been fully vaccinated — about 45% — while less than 50% of Iowans have completed a vaccine regimen.

The number of migrants entering the U.S. illegally has skyrocketed recently. A total of 330,000 migrants have been encountered in the Rio Grande Valley alone over the past 10 months, up 478% from the same time last year. Approximately 190,000 people attempted to cross the southern border illegally from Mexico in June alone, the highest number in about 21 years. The number of sick migrants crossing into the U.S. actually represents just a fraction of the record-breaking totals. In fact, the 900% increase in sick migrants entering the U.S. in the first two weeks of July amounts to just 135 people.

“To overblow the situation as in that’s the main driver of a COVID surge is probably an overstatement… Texas has relatively low vaccination rates,” said Dr. Marcia Ory, Director of the Center for Population Health & Aging at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “We don’t want to blame… the surge on migrants versus recognizing that Texans need to do their part by getting vaccinated.”

IN JUST TWO WEEKS, 135 ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS TEST POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 AT RIO GRANDE VALLEY BORDER

The Biden administration was expected to lift the Title 42 restriction on border crossings this summer, but officials shelved those plans despite pressure from immigration rights advocates to repeal it, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. Administration officials maintained that Border Patrol agents have taken appropriate precautions when they apprehend asylum-seekers.

“CBP provides migrants with PPE from the moment they are taken into custody, and migrants are required to keep masks on at all times,” a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told the Washington Examiner. “If anyone exhibits signs of illness in CBP custody, they are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment. CBP takes its responsibility to prevent the spread of communicable diseases very seriously.”

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