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Officials shed light on disparity between sister border cities’ virus death rate

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El Paso strives to screen large chunk of its population for COVID-19; Juarez only tests those who are 'serioulsy ill'

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Separated only by the Rio Grande, the disparity in COVID-19 death rates in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico remained stark on Friday.

El Paso reported one new death and 45 new cases, bringing its total to 93 fatalities and 3,695 cases since the pandemic began. Juarez reported 15 new fatalities and 37 new cases, upping the death toll to 371 and the number of cases confirmed through PCR tests to 1,709.

That gives Juarez a 22% COVID-19 death rate, compared to El Paso’s 2.65%, despite the latter having recorded twice as many cases.

Border Report for the past two weeks has been asking officials in Texas and in Mexico why such a disparity in a metro area where thousands of people still cross the border each day despite recommendations against non-essential international travel.

Some officials hinted the difference lies in how closely the people of each city follow recommendations not to catch the disease. Others say Juarez just doesn’t test enough people, thus its death rate appears higher than it is.

“The differences between different areas of the region has a multifunctional origin to include social determinants of health and healthcare systems,” said El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza. “The success of preventive programs (depends) in that each community follow the preventive measures and public health recommendations.”

El Paso County, Texas COVID-19 data as of Friday (Graphic courtesy City of El Paso)

Also, El Paso has made it a priority to screen as many people as possible for COVID-19, setting up mobile sites and opening testing to asymptomatic patients. It set a goal of testing 5% of the population by the end of June, but it has already surpassed that goal. The widespread testing has turned up more cases, but the percentage of tests that come back positive are around 8%.

South of the border, the top Chihuahua state health official says Juarez’s large population (1.5 million people), its interaction with El Paso and limited testing policies influence the death rate.

“Juarez has some social, democratic and economic conditions that make it more vulnerable to many things, explosive situations in terms of violence, safety, and health,” said Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, head of the state health department in Juarez.

Valenzuela said Juarez has three out of four cases in the state and that its vicinity to the United States, which right now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, also means more infections.

“When we went into our Phase 1, COVID-19 was raging over there, and it’s common that (Mexican) workers returning home to Mexico pass through here,” he said.

But there’s also the matter of testing policies.

“The number of positive cases stems from tests performed on patients in serious condition. There has been no widespread testing among the citizenry. So, if the tests are performed on gravely ill patients, obviously a greater number will die,” he said.

Valenzuela said that if the tests were widespread, the COVID-19 death rate wouldn’t be so high.

In previous statements, Valenzuela has said the true number of people infected with coronavirus in the state of Chihuahua exceeds 10,000. Taking that as a base number, and with 457 fatalities recorded as of Friday, the COVID-19 death rate would be closer to 4.5% in that Mexican state bordering both Texas and Mexico.

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