Border lawmakers push for ‘binational strategy’ in COVID-19 relief measures


Governor says resources to South Texas to be 'doubled' in upcoming days

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A coalition of federal lawmakers from the Texas border are calling on congressional leaders to give special consideration to border regions in upcoming COVID-19 response and relief measures currently being debated in Congress.

In a letter sent earlier this week to the leaders of the House and Senate, four border lawmakers urged the leaders of the House and Senate “to include language mandating a binational strategy between the United States and Mexico to tackle COVID-19 and the resources necessary to implement it.”

The letter was sent by U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen; Filemon Vela of Brownsville and Henry Cuellar of Laredo, all Democrats, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“It has never been more important for the United States to partner with Mexico to develop a robust border mitigation, testing, and contract tracing plan. Without a coordinated binational response, our border communities’ lives, livelihoods, and the American economy will continue to be at risk,” the letter sent Tuesday read.

From left, U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen; Filemon Vela of Brownsville and Henry Cuellar of Laredo, all Democrats. (Courtesy photos)

The White House and Senate Republicans on Thursday reached a “fundamental agreement” on a $1 trillion package of coronavirus-related measures, The Hill reported. But details of the measures were not yet released. Congress is on a time-crunch to pass coronavirus relief as unemployment benefits are set to expire next week and before Congress adjourns for its August recess. McConnell was among lawmakers who held meetings with White House officials on Thursday.

In the letter to McConnell and the others, the border lawmakers said any relief measures should give special consideration to “trade that supports millions of jobs on both sides of the border,” and must “prioritize the health, safety and welfare of border residents.”

The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas is currently seeing the worst surge of coronavirus infections anywhere in the state and is a priority, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told CBS4 on Wednesday.

“Right now the top priority for the state of Texas is the Rio Grande Valley,” Abbott said, adding that the state has sent 1,200 medical personnel to hard-hit Hidalgo and Cameron counties in South Texas. Abbott added that the state plans “to double that amount in the next week or 10 days making sure that everybody who needs access to medical personnel will gain that access.”

Starr County officials earlier this week announced the county’s hospital was implementing patient screening to determine which COVID-19 patients to accept based on other co-morbidities, their age and general health, and which patients to send home or to hospice care.

Hidalgo County has been one of the hardest hit and Wednesday reported 33 deaths and 650 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the death toll in the county to 400. On Tuesday, the county reported an all-time one-day record of 49 coronavirus deaths. The county has had over 13,776 cases since the pandemic began.

Cameron County reported 11 deaths and 334 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total cases to 6,854.

“I encourage you all to do your part in saving lives by abiding by the curfew, limiting your outings to only essential needs, avoiding any mass gatherings and continuing to use facial coverings while out in public,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said about shelter-in-place and curfew orders he implemented this week to stop the rapid spread of this deadly novel virus.

Abbott said additional hospital beds will be provided as well as facilities for recovering patients not ready to go home but who no longer require intensive hospital care.

Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who sits on an advisory panel that discusses COVID issues every evening with the governor, told Border Report on Thursday that local leaders are working with two hotels to convert them into step-down facilities for recovering COVID-19 patients. The facilities could begin helping up to 100 patients as early as Friday, but likely next week.

Texas State Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, D-20, is vice chairman of the Texas Senate Finance Committee and appointed to a task force by Gov. Greg Abbott to recommend how best to disburse $1.85 billion in federal CARES Act coronavirus relief aid to smaller Texas communities. He is seen at his office in Edinburg, Texas, on May 15, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse last week turned down the region for opening a step-down and/or field hospital. But Hinojosa said bed space is not what’s needed; trained medical staff are what the Rio Grande Valley needs right now.

A total of 300 available beds in Hidalgo County hospitals have been found that can be opened up for COVID-19 patients, Hinojosa said. The problem is having enough medical staff and equipment for those additional facilities. Hospitals in McAllen, Mission and Edinburg have offered 30 to 50 beds, and one facility in Weslaco has 120 beds available, he said.

“The challenge is we have capacity here but we’re trying to get the nurses and medical personell and support. That is the real challenge,” Hinojosa said. “The governor promised us whatever staff is necessary and they’re coming. Hospitals just have to tell us what their needs are and we’ll provide it.”

Border lawmakers said in the letter that Latinos are “more susceptible” to the virus and urged Congress to “flood them with resources for testing and tracing.”

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