President Obama sees no need for now to close the U.S.-Mexico border in the wake of the swine flu outbreak, but communities there remain on heightened alert as officials fight flu and fear with added vigilance and a public awareness campaign.
Obama said at a news conference Wednesday night that public health officials currently see no need to close the border. "From their perspective, it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States," he said.
Nonetheless, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers had stopped 49 travelers going into the United States as of midday Wednesday, isolating them until they could be evaluated by health officials, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers. She did not specify where the travelers were detained, but said test results for swine flu were negative for 41 of them, while eight were still being evaluated.
Thousands of Mexicans and Americans criss-cross the border each day, providing unique challenges for communities where international travel is a daily event. In dozens of towns across the Southwest, it's a short walk from downtown on the U.S. side to their Mexican neighbors' el centro.
Texas officials said a Mexican boy died at a Houston hospital Monday after traveling to Texas from Mexico on April 4. The nearly 2-year-old and his family crossed the border into Brownsville to visit relatives after flying from their home in Mexico City to Matamoros, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. He developed flu symptoms four days later.
Increased Public Awareness
News that the first U.S. death was linked to the border had people flooding doctors' offices and clinics in many communities, local health officials said. A spokesman for Gerica Medical Supplies in Brownsville said there was a waiting list for surgical masks.
Dr. Hector Ocaranza, health official for city and county of El Paso, said public awareness campaigns in the schools and media aim to spread the word that washing your hands and covering a cough will help fight the flu. "If we promote good hygiene and staying home if you're sick, those are proven measures to prevent the spread of the virus," he said.
About 740,000 people live in El Paso and 1.3 million live in Mexican border twin Ciudad Juarez. Although Ocaranza said there have been no confirmed or probable cases of swine flu in either city, El Paso residents are very frightened – for themselves and family members in Mexico. Schools in Ciudad Juarez and all over the Mexican state of Chihuahua are closed, and television footage of near empty streets and Mexicans wearing surgical masks has heightened fears.
Ocaranza said a big part of his job is to convince people not to panic. Nonetheless, people are frightened, and they're flooding doctors' offices, emergency rooms and clinics. "They fear they might be having symptoms of swine flu," he said.
Border churches are being proactive, too.
Bishop Raymundo Pena of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville asked parish priests to take precautions as communities try to stop the spread of the flu virus.
Pena recommended that priests forgo the communion wine, giving parishoners bread only. He also asked that the priests put communion bread in worshippers' hands, rather than on the tongue, and that congregations not hold hands during the Lord's Prayer.
"It's just a precaution," said diocese spokeswoman Brenda Riojas.
Border Businesses Hurt
Across the 2,000-mile border, there is increased vigilance as Customs and Border Protection officers implement procedures to identify travelers who might be sick. Rick Pauza, CBP spokesman in Laredo, Texas, said officers give suspected carriers gloves and a mask, then isolate them and contact health officials.
"These are procedures that we've had in place to respond to avian flu, also a traveler who had a serious" type of tuberculosis, Pauza said.
Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said flu worries are having a devastating impact on local businesses. In the past seven to 10 days, the number of bus passengers from Mexico into the McAllen area has dropped 30 percent, and bridge traffic has fallen 17 percent, he said. McAllen, which is across the border from the Mexican city of Reynosa, is a popular shopping destination for Mexicans.
Mexican nationals account for $3.5 billion in retail sales in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley each year, but in the past two to three weeks, sales have dropped between 10 and 12 percent, Ahlenius said, adding that the poor economy is partially to blame.
Rumors that the border might close and fear of catching the flu are keeping customers out of stores, he said. "The rumors have an impact. People from both sides of the border are afraid they're going to be stuck," so they just stay home, he said.
The Health Question
On Wednesday, Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said closing the borders would not help control the spread of the flu because it is already widespread in the U.S. and Mexico.
Napolitano echoed those sentiments in her congressional testimony, saying such action would have an adverse economic impact and would do little or nothing to stop the virus from spreading.
"Closing our nation's borders is not merited here," Napolitano said.
Riojas, who lives in the Rio Grande Valley, said closing the borders would be a hardship for U.S. border dwellers. Her husband works on the Mexican side of the border, and — like many border residents — Riojas ferries her daughter to a dentist in the Mexican city of Matamoros. Just last weekend, she attended a poetry festival there.
Riojas also said Mexican students from pre-kindergarten to college commute daily to attend classes in the United States. The Brownsville Diocese has 866 Mexican students in its 14 schools in the border area.
Church officials closed one in Rio Grande City because the public schools were closed, Riojas said. The Texas Education Agency said at least seven school districts have closed schools because of the flu threat. The Rio Grande City district closed schools this week after two sixth-graders became ill with an unidentified strain of the flu.
Riojas said crossing the border is a daily event for many families.
"For us, (crossing the border) is a daily reality," Riojas said. "We have bridges that connect us to Matamoros and Reynosa." But, Riojas said, the populations on both sides of the border are also linked by family, work, school and culture. "We say, 'es un entre cambio' — an interchange."