With hope growing that COVID-19 vaccines will soon be widely available, the answer to one of life’s most torturous questions — when will the pandemic end? — may soon be clearer.
It will likely be a while longer, however, before we can thoroughly sort out how the disease spread so fast.
Part of the answer appears to be emerging now in Far West Texas, and what we’re learning there goes much deeper than lessons related to face coverings and social distancing.
As is true elsewhere, some people have followed prevention protocols strictly, while others have brushed aside public health warnings against not wearing masks, uninhibited travel and elbow-to-elbow gatherings. In other words, El Paso has responded much like many other U.S. cities much less devastated by the pandemic. Of all the American cities hit hard by the coronavirus, El Paso is on a short list of those taking some of the most severe punches. Based on per capita confirmed cases as of Jan. 6, 2021, El Paso was 11th–worst in the United States — 119 cases for every 1,000 residents, according to The New York Times data. The number of those dying was growing so fast in November 2020 that prison inmates were enlisted to carry bodies to mobile morgues. The city’s convention center was converted into a makeshift hospital.
But what El Paso has that most metro areas don’t is a busy bi-national gateway — a distinction, we’re learning, that’s no small thing for a big city confronting a virulent threat. In fact, our research at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) found recently that areas with border crossings had an infection rate more than double that of areas without crossing facilities. In the six Mexican states and four U.S. states that share the border, despite pandemic restrictions on both sides, the rate was 2.2 times higher in U.S. counties with a crossing facility, and 2.25 times higher in Mexican cities with a crossing.
Any pandemic hotspot warrants extra attention, whether it’s a geographic region, a major employer or a community event. But when the hotspot is a bi-national border crossing, that added focus also demands strict governmental coordination of containment strategies. A virus, after all, doesn’t recognize international boundaries any more than air pollution does.
The challenge is not unlike that of treating a severe injury to the human body. The trauma may require a tourniquet that’s designed to limit — but not stop — the flow of blood to a seriously injured arm or leg. If not applied judiciously, the treatment carries its own risks of irreversible harm; proper application can save the life of the patient. A more harmonized effort is imperative not only for human survival, but for economic continuity as well. Border crossings allow for hundreds of millions of dollars in both imports and exports between the United States and Mexico every year, supporting more than a million American jobs, according to TTI research. Efforts to limit the spread of a life-threatening contagion at land ports of entry, if not undertaken thoughtfully, can impede life-supporting economic activity. But carefully executed control measures can ensure that both priorities share primacy.
How infectious diseases are transmitted really hasn’t changed over time. What has evolved, though, with technology and globalization, is the speed of transmission.
Thanks to easier travel, recent viral outbreaks (like SARS in 2002, Avian Flu in 2005, and now COVID-19) have spread far more quickly than before.
It’s vital for us to know how cross-border transportation influences the transmission of an infectious disease. By understanding that link more clearly, we can balance two essential and competing priorities: mitigating the spread of infection while preserving bi-national mobility and commerce.
Knowing how to strike the right balance will serve us well in responding to future waves of our current public health crisis, or the onslaught of an entirely new one. As history has shown many times, it’s more a question of when, rather than if.
Aldrete is a senior research scientist and Gurbuz is an assistant research scientist, both at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian, January 13, 2021.