(CN) — Hospitals near California’s Southern border are in danger of being overwhelmed by a crippling surge in Covid-19 cases, physicians and public health officials told state senators on Tuesday.
On March 8, El Centro Regional Medical Center saw its first infections from a family that had traveled to Mexico and Florida and returned to Southern California through Georgia.
“We have seen a nonstop increases in cases at ECRMC since that day, including an increase in cases coming from Mexico,” hospital CEO Adolphe Edward said at a joint hearing of two state Senate committees, the Select Committee on California-Mexico Cooperation and the Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response.
Imperial County Public Health Director Janette Angulo said despite following all health guidelines and adopting a conservative approach to reopening businesses, Imperial County — which shares a border with Mexico — has still seen a startling uptick in positive coronavirus tests in recent weeks.
The surge prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to ask county officials to reinstate stay-at-home orders last Friday.
“Of the 30,700 tests administered, over 6,200 have been positive. That may not sound significant to many but when it’s a county with an estimated population of 181,000 it is substantial,” Angulo testified.
She said over the last 14 days, Imperial County’s case rate per population has jumped to almost three times as much as Los Angeles County, which has a population of 10 million.
“Dine-in restaurants, bars, personal care services and all other higher risk workplaces remain closed,” she said. “Thus, the largest question is — what is causing the surge in cases and hospitalizations in our county?”
The answer, some doctors and health experts believe, may be its way of life, in which essential workers, U.S. citizens, and permanent residents flow back and forth across the border.
“Dynamics thought to be influencing Covid-19 spread are culture, multigenerational families and infections within the same household, personal and social behaviors, gatherings, and constant comings and goings across the border,” Angulo said. “Over 20,000 people are still crossing the international border from Mexicali to Calexico on a daily basis for work, health care and other business. Travel is not just one way. Imperial County residents seek health care, shops and visit family on the other side of the border.”
Wait times at border checkpoints were up to seven hours on Friday due to screening protocols set up by the government of Mexico, she said.
“One thing I’ve been made aware of is the Mexico side has issued a moratorium on the purchase of alcoholic beverages, which has led to a large influx of people coming into the U.S. from Mexico to purchase things like alcohol,” said Senator Ben Hueso, D-San Diego. “The response from Mexico has been to create checkpoints on the re-entry to Mexico to make sure people aren’t hoarding products.”
He asked panelists whether the rush to buy alcohol in the U.S. has contributed to the Covid-19 infection rate, “especially when people are traveling and they’re informing the customs officers that they’re essential travelers or workers when they probably are not.”
Health officials said they were not aware of this but would follow up on the question.
“Certainly there’s a number of factors with the relationship between Imperial County and Mexicali — with people living and working and having the essential need to travel back and forth,” said Eric Lamoureux with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Many of those traveling across the border everyday are health care workers. Edward said 60 out of 1100 members of his staff live in the Mexicali in Northern Mexico, about a 30-minute drive from El Centro.
“They are essential and travel back and forth,” he said.
And that’s just a speck compared to the 275,000 U.S. citizens who live in Mexicali, “including 30,000 retired U.S. military vets like myself and thousands of green card holders across the border,” Edward added.
He said El Centro Regional Medical Center can no longer handle the influx of cases, and has been transferring five to ten patients every day to hospitals in San Diego County, primarily UC San Diego Health.
“As hospitals in San Diego county and across Southern California begin to fill up with Covid patients, our patients stay with us in the [Emergency Department] waiting to be transferred, sometimes in excess of three days and this is not acceptable,” Edward said. “We need to stop our reliance on transferring to UCSD and other locations. We need to actually establish patient care in the valley and increase that care.”
Cases are also rising two hours west in the city of Chula Vista, which lies across the border from Tijuana. “We cannot stop citizens, permanent residents or people with work visas from crossing the border,” said Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas.
Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health System, which operates Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, said Covid-positive test results have been doubling since June 19.
He said 48% of patients who tested positive for Covid-19 who visited the emergency room between May 24 and May 30 said they had recently traveled to Mexico, a figure that climbed to 60% between May 31 and June 2. “Our daily average is well now above previous daily case records set in March,” Van Gorder said.
Chula Vista is also accepting transfers from Imperial County — 231 patients as of Tuesday morning.
For Larry Lewis, CEO of Pioneers Community Healthcare District 25 miles north of the Mexico border, watching the spread of Covid-19 was like tracking a hurricane.
“We saw this as a faraway storm,” he said. The hospital admitted its first case on March 16. In April, the hospital had 21 new Covid-19 admissions, a number that shot to 62 in May. Lewis said he doesn’t have an exact number of new admissions for June, “but I’m sure it’s in the 70s and beyond.”
He expects the numbers will grow with the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.
All three hospitals are facing a supply shortage. “We need support, we need supplies, PPE, medication, reagents for our labs, and FDA-approved swabs for both Covid-19 and influenza, all of which are in short supply. And we need creative solutions to protect people on both sides of the border,” Van Gorder said.
“The need is simple: We need four ICU doctors, 28 RNs, 14 respiratory therapists and 20 additional [ventilators], in addition to all the vents we have seen through the county and the state,” Edward said.
Luis Olmedo, Executive Director of Comite Civico Del Valle, said California can no longer ignore the interconnection between California and Mexico.
“We have a fluid relationship where there is a convenience of essential workers working our essential jobs — our agriculture, our manufacturing, our retail, our wholesale,” he said, urging lawmakers to fund nonprofits that can reach out to communities that may not be fully aware of the risk of infection while toiling in Imperial County’s lettuce fields.
“Let me tell you about the farmworkers. They have to build this type of resistance because of the working conditions. You think they’re scared of a virus? They have been conditioned to deal with very harsh conditions,” Olmedo said. “So when we go out and talk to the community and the farmworkers, they think this is just another little cold that’s going to pass them by. That’s not a failure of theirs. That’s a failure of the conditions that they have been put to, and the fact that the state of California benefits from these workers and does not provide them with the resources they need.”
The joint committee will prepare a memo based on the testimony from Tuesday’s hearing to submit to both legislative houses and the governor.