Supplies for coronavirus field hospital held up at U.S.-Mexico border

(Reuters) – Red tape and rules on exporting medical gear have delayed work on a field hospital for migrants in an asylum camp near Mexico’s border with Texas, undercutting efforts to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, according to organizers of the project.

A family of migrants are seen outside a tent at a migrant encampment where more than 2,000 people live while seeking asylum in the U.S., while the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Matamoros, Mexico April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Mexican authorities approved construction of the 20-bed field hospital on April 2. But since then, a trailer laden with supplies for the project has been parked in Brownsville, Texas, less than a block from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Global Response Management, the nonprofit sprearheading the project, said the trailer contains an X-ray machine, cots, heart monitors, medical tents, generators and other equipment. Its staff fear time is running out to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.

“If we are trying to set up the hospital in the middle of the epidemic, it’s too late,” Andrea Leiner, director of strategic planning for the organization, told Reuters on Tuesday.

“We are in a situation where containment and quarantine are not possible, so we need to be aggressive on prevention.”

There are no confirmed cases yet in the camp on the banks of the Rio Grande that houses about 2,000 migrants, mostly Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. The camp also holds Cubans, Venezuelans and Mexican asylum seekers along with other nationalities.

But testing has been limited. Health experts say the migrants are exceedingly vulnerable, their immune systems worn down after months living in closely packed tents.

Due to a U.S. order banning the export of key protective medical gear, the nonprofit had to remove equipment such as gloves, surgical masks and N95 masks from the trailer in Brownsville. It is now trying to source what it can from Mexico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have said they are trying to prevent brokers and intermediaries from diverting critical medical resources overseas.

In a rule issued on Friday, FEMA said it would consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including humanitarian considerations, when determining whether to detain shipments of medical gear.

Global Response said U.S. authorities cleared its remaining supplies on Sunday, but it is now awaiting a letter from the Matamoros mayor’s office certifying the equipment will only be brought into the country for six months, so the shipment can be approved by Mexican customs.

Mexico’s customs agency, the Matamoros mayor’s office and the National Migration Institute (INM) did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the trailer, Global Response has collected hundreds of cloth masks sewn by volunteers for the camp, but it has only been able to bring them in three at a time, the quantity deemed for “personal use” and thus not subject to import duties in Mexico.

The group has accumulated 3,500 rapid tests for the coronavirus to use in the camp, said executive director Helen Perry.

Many in the camp are awaiting U.S. hearings under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy. All hearings under the program have been suspended until May 1.

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In Matamoros, which has a population of about half a million people, the five public hospitals have 25 ventilators and 11 intensive care beds between them, according to figures provided to Reuters by the state government last month.

A Mexican government plan to relocate the migrants to a stadium was abandoned, Global Response’s Leiner said.

The nonprofit and INM are now working to fence off the camp and conduct temperature checks as people enter, she said.

Reporting by Julia Love in Mexico City and Mica Rosenberg in New York, additional reporting by Verónica G. Cárdenas and Daniel Becerril in Matamoros,; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Tom Brown

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