At Texas border, high pandemic toll lays bare health and insurance gaps

Texas was one of the first states to reopen after the coronavirus nationwide shutdown in March and April last year. Last June – even as cases were on the rise – Governor Greg Abbott allowed all businesses, including restaurants, to operate at up to 50 percent of capacity, with a few exceptions. And he refused to place capacity restrictions on churches and other religious establishments or let local governments impose mask requirements.

In November, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an injunction to end a foreclosure order implemented by the El Paso County Judge, the top administrative official, at a time when hospitals in ‘El Paso were so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that 10 mobile mortuaries had to be set up at an area hospital to accommodate the dead.

Unlike Texas, New Mexico has extended Medicaid under the ACA and, as a result, has a much lower uninsured rate than Texas for people under 65 – 12% compared to 21% of Texas, according to census figures. And New Mexico had aggressive rules for face masks and public gatherings. Yet this did not spare New Mexico from the crisis. The epidemics in and around the Navajo reservation have hit hard. Overall, its death rate in the state exceeded the state rate of Texas, but along the border, New Mexico’s rates were lower in all age groups.

For some border families, the immense toll of the pandemic has resulted in multiple deaths among relatives. Ruby Montana has lost not only her uncle to COVID-19 in recent months, but also her cousin Julieta “Julie” Apodaca, a former elementary school teacher and speech therapist.

Montana said Valles’s death surprised the family. He was a distance-taught teacher at Guillen Middle School in the Segundo Barrio neighborhood of El Paso, an area known as “the other Ellis Island” because of its proximity to the border and its history as an enclave for Mexican immigrant families.

About Marie A. Gingrich

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