An Update From Matamoros (First Positive COVID-19 Case Confirmed In Camp)

Update June 30, 2020: Global Response Management’s executive director Helen Perry confirmed three more potential COVID-19 cases in the camp in an update on Tuesday afternoon. “As of 6/30 we have 5 patients in isolation, 2 who are awaiting results of testing and 3 who have tested positive on antibody testing. We are continuing to contact trace and isolate as appropriate. We are taking an agressive approach to contact tracing and isolation in the hopes that we can catch infections early and prevent protential spread as much as possible. As of today, we have done 344 tests and have had 9 positive results (only 3 of whom were residents of the camp),” wrote Perry.

GRM confirmed in a press release Tuesday morning that one patient has tested positive for COVID-19. “On Thursday, 6/25, staff at Global Response Management’s clinic in the Matamoros, Mexico asylum camp identified one person who met our screening criteria for COVID-19. That person, including three additional family members without symptoms, were immediately moved to the designated isolation area outside of camp and PCR tested. On Monday, 6/29, testing came back positive for the suspected patient and negative for all three family members,” wrote GRM.

“In addition, two more individuals living together in camp were isolated on Friday, 6/26 who met screening criteria and were moved to the designated isolation area. PCR tests are pending for these patients.”

The positive case is the first confirmed coronavirus case in the camp. Matamoros and Reynosa, Tamaulipas were reported to have the highest number of cases in the entire state last week. In Brownsville, positive COVID-19 cases are surging with no testing available for asymptomatic carriers. As of Tuesday, mask mandates and a curfew were in place, with Cameron County reporting 2,296 cases, 1,446 recovered, and hospital beds at capacity.

According to GRM’s press release, there were 1,215 confirmed cases in Matamoros on Tuesday morning. The latest camp population estimate is 2,000 asylum seekers. The organization’s staff of doctors and nurses, most of whom are asylum seekers themselves, has since February implemented a prevention, fortification, and treatment strategy that has largely kept the camp virus-free. Measures include preventative education, mask wearing, the construction and distribution of 88 hand washing stations, the implementation of sanitation strategies in common areas, tent spacing, and temperature checks at the camp entrance conducted by INM.

Camp residents have been distributed multivitamins containing Vitamin D and Zinc, and those at high risk of serious illness if infected have been identified. GRM’s 20-bed field hospital is still up and running and has the capacity to treat mild and moderately-ill COVID-19 patients, according to the press release.

At around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night, residents of the camp woke up to cries for help from the street below. According to Josue, a camp leader, he was sleeping with his family in their tent. He went to see what happened, discovering two families from Haiti “screaming and asking for help”.

“One family ran towards the bridge to the United States and another family ran towards Mexican migration, we decided to look for them, to see what happened. New people absolutely cannot enter into the immigrant camp. It is supposed to be the Mexican migration policy, but at the same time it’s not met, I decided to help them, spoke with camp security guards and they gave me permission to be near the camp outside with them. Thank God I had a camping tent in my donation store. We provided it for [the night] so that we could solve the problem for them tomorrow,” wrote Josue.

According to his messages, the family was walking from the center of Matamoros towards the camp. Three blocks away, there’s an active construction site. There, someone tried to kidnap the families. They were robbed but were able to escape, arriving outside the camp in the middle of the night without any clothes, shoes, or belongings. Josue said one family consisted of three children and two adults, while the second family was made up of two adults and a baby. They were provided personal cleaning kits as well as the tent, and masks. Josue expressed gratitude camp leaders were able to step in and assist, but sounded shaken, as the incident reminded asylum seekers the reality of how dangerous Matamoros can be. The State Department’s Level 2 travel advisory for Mexico warns citizens of crime and kidnapping, homicide, carjacking, and robbery, calling violent crime “widespread”.

“U.S. government employees may not travel between cities after dark, may not hail taxis on the street, and must rely on dispatched vehicles, including from app-based services like Uber or from regulated taxi stands,” the guidance states.

Josue shared photos of the families and the people who assisted him. He said they’re heroes to him, because they “helped others who helped, regardless of where they were from and who they were.”

“Please, United States, no more immigrants held at the border; it is very dangerous. We need a response. As immigrants, we need you to support our rights and we need to demand our rights. Please, no more people waiting at the borders. Please, President of the United States, President Donald Trump, no more immigrants waiting at the borders. It is very insecure to be here, and thank you to those who [pay attention] and know the reality of what we suffer here as migrants. We have a story to tell of the realities of what we suffer here, of what we suffered in our country, on our way not being able to get to the United States. It’s unfair that they return [migrants] from the United States,” he said, referencing both the expulsion process begun in March and the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program that has barred camp residents entry — some families for around a year now.

“We are not here because we want. We are here because we cannot return to our country. We need a change. Blessings for all. Blessings for the President of the United States, blessings worldwide. We are all human. Let’s love each other.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Resource Center Matamoros detailed how staff was able to assist the families. “Some of our most vulnerable families come to the camp from all over, including Haiti, seeking asylum in the US. Unfortunately, the immigration system has completely shut down the asylum process all together. The border is closed and the camp is closed to new families,” wrote RCM. “It is up to the Dignity Village collaborative (Core NGOs providing humanitarian aid to refugees in the camp) to address these families extreme need. They find themselves without resources and homeless in a strange city far from their home country.”

RCM provided shelter and food for both families. Team Brownsville provided clothes, supplies, and Tienda #1 staff organized a trip to the local police station to address the attempted kidnapping. RCM staff was able to transport the families to a hotel for two nights and arranged transport back to the center to begin the process of retrieving the families’ stolen documents, as well as to coordinate an interview with UNHCR for potential assistance.

Update June 29, 2020: GRM confirmed they were still waiting on PCR test results for the family in isolation.

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Storms on Thursday brought more rain to Camp Dignity in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where 2,500 asylum seekers live in tents along the Rio Grande. For several months, the area has been cordoned off by Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus into the population.

On Thursday, an asylum seeker living in the camp reported that a family might have COVID-19. Staff at Global Response Management, which provides full-time medical care from its mobile unit on the dirt levee, said a family of asylum seekers had been isolated and swabbed for PCR tests after displaying symptoms. On Saturday, GRM’s project coordinator Sam Bishop confirmed the organization was still waiting for the results from the health department in Matamoros.

According to Andrea Rudnik, volunteer coordinator with Team Brownsville, the family arrived recently but somehow made it past INM before being screened, temperature checked, and quarantined. Media reported this week that Matamoros and Reynosa had the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state. Positive COVID-19 cases were also skyrocketing across the river in Cameron County, where officials on Friday reported 2,085 cases with tests still pending. At a press conference on Friday, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr. and the county’s health authority Dr. James Castillo, alongside several hospital directors, warned the public that hospital beds are already at capacity.

Reuters reported in March that the Matamoros, a city of around 500,000 residents, had only 25 ventilators and 11 ICU beds at its five public hospitals. Numbers provided to aid workers varied, with GRM reporting the same month the city had 40 ICU beds and 10 ventilators available. Both numbers meant preventative efforts in the camp would be critical. GRM’s staff of doctors and nurses began educating camp residents and providing vitamins, eventually organizing the construction of a field hospital in collaboration with The Footprint Project. GRM’s asylum seeker staff has been crucial in preventing and managing the spread of coronavirus in the camp since the U.S./Mexico border shut down to all nonessential travel, and extra security measures were put in place to keep the virus out.

This week, asylum seeker staff at Resource Center Matamoros constructed more wooden pallets to place underneath tents. Some of those were built specifically for GRM’s isolation area, where prior to this week no one was living. The uneven dirt pathways turn to mud when it rains. Water pools and floods tents, soaking belongings, forcing aid groups to replace the dwellings when the weather clears to prevent mold from growing in the Valley’s heat. Staff on the camp’s sanitation crew dug trenches and culverts to funnel water towards the river. Camp leaders have access to a tool shed in which there are three pumps — two small that can clear living spaces, a larger pump to drain pathways, well as tools to dig channels.

The levee could flood in the event of a hurricane. Erin Hughes, a civil engineer volunteering in the camp to address storm drainage, recently completed work on a tentative flood evacuation plan. Organizers sent the outline to UNHCR and are now working to schedule a meeting with local officials in order to implement a formal plan.”The levee was constructed at that specific height so there could be a hurricane or a large, intense storm and essentially sacrifice that park in order to save the city downstream or upstream. That can happen in one of two ways. There could be storm surge — which is when water will actually come up the Rio Grande from the gulf. That means there’s a hurricane happening in the gulf and water from the Rio Grande can no longer drain out into the gulf. It will back up. You can get flooding because the Rio Grande is not draining, or you can get flooding upstream if there is a big storm inland, and water is coming down,” said Hughes.

The engineer decided to utilize two stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey already installed roughly six miles down and 40 miles up the river. In order to get an accurate reading from gauges so far away, Hughes interpolated between the two, calculating how high the water needed to be at each stream gauge in order to activate the emergency plan. The part of the levee where most of the tents are located sits at about 30 feet above sea level, while the baseline river elevation is around 20 feet lower. Organizers with the Resource Center and GRM developed two alerts — one as a warning and one for evacuation. According to Hughs’ calculations, the river will overflow when the upstream gauge measures 51 feet above sea level, or when the downstream gauge reaches 23 feet above sea level, with a 10 percent factor of safety. “We decided when the water reaches 19 feet at that downstream stream gauge, that means that it’s reaching a warning elevation at the camp,” said Hughes.

The initial warning would let residents know to start packing up their belongings. Any older residents, families with young children, or those with mobility issues would start heading out to the plaza. When the downstream gauge measures 21 feet, which translates to 28 feet at the camp, USGS’s Water Alert tool would send a message to organizers, triggering the evacuation plan. This is a question they still have for Mexican officials — who is going to be the responsible party? Who will receive the alert via email or text and ring the alarm bells? Hughes said that could be the Mexican authorities, INM, aid workers, or even camp leaders. Organizers need the government to provide temporary shelter in the event that 2,500 asylum seekers must suddenly relocate to concrete below the levee. Organizers are working with local officials to formalize the plan. Now a month into hurricane season, addressing the potential for serious flooding is more urgent than ever.

Josue, an asylum seeker who has lived in the camp with his family for nearly a year, sent a video on Thursday showing conditions while it rains. “We are here at the bridge in Matamoros and it has been raining for five minutes. You can see what happens when storms occur, when we suffer. The tents are scrunched up and we have to use hands or sticks to hold them for the children inside, so the water doesn’t break the tent, get inside, and ruin their things. The water also goes in. We have to throw them away with the sticks every time it rains. This is what happens in the migrant camps,” said Josue.

He pleaded with officials across the border to respond to the situation. “Please, no more MPP, no more suffering,” he said. “You can see the children trying to shake the water so it doesn’t break the tent.”

In another video sent this week, Josue described how conditions can become unsanitary very quickly, even with the Resource Center’s staff of asylum seekers working on camp sanitation as frequently as possible. “You can see what happens when the trash is not picked up — the distance from where it is from the tent with inhabitants. It’s very close to the trash — this has been here for several days. I’m going to show you the worms. I’m showing you what we have to deal with, why I decided to make this video. It’s trash that has been here for several days. The whole camp is like this. There is trash there, there, and there are families and children. There are other trash bags all around.”

MPP hearings are currently postponed through July 21. Under the extended March 20 CDC order, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf also extended the administration’s policy authorizing the immediate expulsion of anyone caught crossing the border without documents, and the entire border is still shut to nonessential travel, bringing the asylum system to a grinding halt.

Aid work in the camp continues. The Resource Center provides medical referrals, HIV testing coordination, and case management, as well as connection to psychological support, legal aid, and church services. The center organized a safe network of taxis to transport residents to and from appointments and can step in to assist when someone has a court date at another location. RCM’s volunteer staff is made up of camp residents, providing them job training and references when the time comes to seek mployment. This month, RCM helped a barber seeking asylum start his business by advocating to get him a proper space to cut hair. Staff sourced him equipment, chairs, and cleaning materials and was working on sourcing rechargeable tools to circumvent the lack of electricity. The levee is also home to several restaurants, as well as plenty of professionals who use their services to get by while awaiting court dates, as well as to assist fellow residents.

Team Brownsville provides daily meals, which volunteers used to bring across themselves. To prevent the spread of the virus, the organization now coordinates with a restaurant in Matamoros that previously provided breakfast. Restaurant staff now prepares and drops off meals to camp residents, who then coordinate the distribution of food at mealtimes. Team Brownsville is also currently stocking the various tiendas where people in need of basic necessities can obtain them for free. The organization’s Escuelita de la Banqueta recently restocked its library after books were damaged by rain. Asylum seekers are in need of gloves for food distribution, though organizers prefer monetary donations to source things like soap, hand sanitizer, and masks in Mexico. At GRM, Bishop said staff can always use PPE, ultrasound gel, hand sanitizer, and Welch Allyn thermometer probe covers. “Monetary donations are usually the most effective,” he said.