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Cities On Both Sides Of U.S.-Mexico Border Strain Under Coronavirus Surge

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, are effectively one community that crosses a border, and they're being hit hard by a surge of coronavirus cases. On the U.S. side, El Paso County health officials have reported more than 1,400 newly infected people, a record. More than 800 people are now hospitalized. High school football is on hold, and county leaders are recommending people stay home. They've enacted a nighttime curfew in hopes of keeping people inside. For more on the situation, let's bring in Angela Kocherga, who joins us from El Paso.

Hi, Angela.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what are officials saying there in El Paso?

KOCHERGA: Well, they're bracing for another bad week, as they try to contain rampant community spread. And, of course, a big concern are hospitals that reached capacity this past weekend. And there's a mobilization to increase critical care hospital beds, and there have been some tents set up outside of a hospital here for overflow patients. The state of Texas is providing additional medical staff and equipment. And the governor of Texas got permission to use William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, and that hospital will begin admitting patients who are not service members or veterans.

SHAPIRO: And I understand the mayor of Juarez has asked the Mexican government for a temporary ban on U.S. citizens entering the country. How big a deal would an action like that be?

KOCHERGA: Well, it is a big deal. It's a big ask. But remember, Ari; the border has been closed to all but essential travel as a COVID-19 precaution since March. But the big problem is while Mexican citizens can't come into the U.S., you know, Americans have been going back and forth in part because they can't be kept from returning home to their own country, the U.S. So there are some essential reasons for crossing - for work, education and medical reasons. But U.S. citizens are also going across to visit relatives, and authorities on both sides of the border are saying, do not go to Mexico right now.

SHAPIRO: What is the situation on the Mexico side of the border? As we said, it's effectively one large community on two sides of the border.

KOCHERGA: Yeah. Juarez is much larger than El Paso, but these two cities have really strong family ties, economic and cultural ties. And Juarez right now has a much worse situation. There are more COVID deaths. Now, the number of cases is lower only because Mexico does not test at the same rate the U.S. does. And Juarez is largely left to private labs, and that's very expensive. The Juarez hospitals filled up last week with COVID patients. The military is setting up a mobile medical facility. But people there are basically being told, take care of yourself because we don't have room at the hospital. And medical staff are stretched very, very thin.

SHAPIRO: And the fact that this community is in two countries must make contact tracing very difficult. How is that working?

KOCHERGA: It is difficult, but, you know, it's been working. Since the beginning, there's been a cross-border contact tracing effort. For example, if someone in El Paso tests positive, then the health department here notifies authorities in Juarez, and then they contact trace on that side. But as the number of cases in El Paso has gone up, you know, contact tracers here are overwhelmed, and they're lagging behind overall. Right now, for example, 25% of the people who have been identified as contacts are being notified within 48 hours. So that's a very low rate. And so they don't know that they were exposed for quite some time.

SHAPIRO: Now, El Paso County leaders have enacted a curfew and other measures, but they say ultimately this is up to the community to get the pandemic under control. How is the community reacting? Are people wearing masks, staying home?

KOCHERGA: Well, people have been wearing masks, but they haven't been staying home. You know, there have been reasons to go out. And so they've been out and about on the streets. Today there are far fewer people out. Restaurants have to close at 9 p.m. We have that curfew. There's no high school football. That's a big change. And then last weekend, there were - there was a venue here that was hosting weddings and receptions and quinceaneras, which is the coming-of-age celebration.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KOCHERGA: And that business said it would stop doing that.

SHAPIRO: All right.

KOCHERGA: One other thing, Ari - we have a snowstorm here. So that's also been a reason people...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

KOCHERGA: ...Have decided to stay home.

SHAPIRO: All right. Angela Kocherga, the news director of KTEP, the member station in El Paso, thank you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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