Biden administration scrambles to avert Covid outbreaks at the southern border

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has turned down an offer from DHS to use FEMA funds to pay for tests and quarantine migrants who test positive. For his part, Abbott has repeatedly beaten up and said the Biden administration over the past few days it releases Covid-positive migrants and “putting the lives of Texans and Americans at risk”.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management has sent 40,000 free coronavirus tests to Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and Del Rio since late January. In El Paso, both the city and the county run the emergency management office that ran the tests.

In McAllen, Texas, the city recently set up tents for Catholic charities to conduct the tests. Migrants – mainly family units – who arrive in the USA and are allowed to stay there are dropped off in the tents in vans or buses after they have been processed by customs and border guards. Once a rapid test is done, those with negative results will be led across a block to the Catholic Charities Relief Center, where they will coordinate their trip to be with family members. Those who test positive get help from nonprofits, not the government, to quarantine at local hotels.

“It’s not a crisis in our city. We work with and support a great NGO and they seem to be dealing with it,” said Jim Darling, Mayor of McAllen.

In Brownsville, Texas, tests are taking place at the bus station where migrants – mostly parents with young children – are dropped off after CBP detention. Local NGOs have organized accommodation and hotel rooms for migrants who tested positive to stay during quarantine.

In El Paso, the Annunciation House, one of the country’s largest protection networks for migrants and refugees, is taking the lead in screening migrants in collaboration with the district’s emergency management office. As in McAllen, migrants – mostly families – are dropped off by CBP at one of the network’s centers and tested immediately upon arrival.

Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of Annunciation House, said he believes the federal government needs to partner with an agency like the CDC or FEMA to work with the U.S. Border Protection Agency to conduct the tests.

“Border Patrol cannot run the tests. You are not set up for it. … It is legitimate for the border police to say: “We do not want this responsibility. It is not enforcement, whatever we do. “So they need a partner to help them with the tests,” said Garcia. “That has to happen.”

Local officials and NGO leaders also note that migrants cannot be quarantined if they test positive as they are already outside of CBP detention and are free to travel to their final destinations, where family members are often outside of the border area.

In federal institutions along the border, officials and NGOs do their best to keep migrants, especially children, socially separated. However, as capacities increase day by day, people in charge of overseeing public health operations in these facilities say it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep your distance.

“The big problem is just the amount of space it takes to isolate people,” said Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator in the Obama administration. “Capacity has always been an issue at the limit. But we’ve never seen anything like it. Covid made everything complicated and so I think the administration is doing its best to check people out when they come in and isolate them if necessary. The question is what happens when these facilities are full. … The virus can spread easily. “

A senior civil servant who works on the federal government’s work with migrant children said the CDC sent HHS information last week about what action officials should take to protect unaccompanied minors. These recommendations included performing rapid antigen tests, making sure the mask fitted properly, improving ventilation, and cleaning surfaces. Border Patrol was advised to immediately give masks to migrants at the time of arrest.

A spokesman for HHS said the increase in migrants at the border is adding to an increased risk of Covid-19 outbreaks in gathering environments.

“The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities are better suited for child-friendly care with appropriately trained staff, but require extensive environmental containment measures to ensure a safe environment. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said the spokesman. The department would increase the capacity of its facilities to “reduce the risk of outbreaks”.

“CDC believes that an ORR facility that has more stringent mitigation measures in place and is at full capacity is less likely to have an outbreak than a densely packed CBP facility with little to no mitigation measures.”

Adm. Brett Giroir, who served as test tsar in the Trump administration, also warned that without testing, an outbreak could occur in CBP facilities. “I know what CBP facilities are, there are 300 people thrown into little concrete cells for 72 hours and then sent wherever they go,” Giroir said. “This is not a good situation.”

David Lim contributed to this report.

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