Vax bus

A bus waits in Nogales, Sonora on Thursday morning to bring people across the border for COVID-19 vaccinations at the Mariposa Port of Entry.

Hundreds of people boarded buses just south of the Mariposa Port of Entry early Thursday morning as they prepared to be driven across the border to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the port.

It was the first day of a two-day, binational program to vaccinate approximately 1,000 people from Mexico at the U.S. port of entry. A second session was planned for Friday morning.

The effort is similar to a number of programs carried out by officials in border cities in California and Texas, primarily to vaccinate the people who work at Mexican maquiladoras – the foreign-owned factories along Mexico’s northern border that manufacture consumer goods for export.

However, unlike the vaccination programs in cities like San Diego, Calif. and El Paso, Texas, which have been openly discussed and heralded by leaders on both sides of the border, those behind the effort in Nogales aren’t saying much about it.

The Mexican Consulate in Nogales is playing a central role in the vaccination clinics, but a staffer said Wednesday that they were under strict orders not to release any information about it. The University of Arizona is reportedly involved as well, but a communications specialist at the UA School of Public Health could not immediately provide information.

Jeff Terrell, the health services director for Santa Cruz County, said his office is serving as a consultant to the program, but not providing any resources. He said he didn’t have any details about how it’s operating.

Others with secondary roles were able to cast slightly more light on the effort.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates the Mariposa Port of Entry, acknowledged its role in the clinics in a brief statement. CBP’s Tucson Field Office, it said, “is working with its stakeholders and providing a venue for vaccine distribution by local medical professionals.”

“The vaccine recipients are not entering the United States and upon receiving the vaccine, (are) returning to Mexico,” the statement said.

Dr. Zenen Padilla, the director of public health in Nogales, Sonora, told the NI on Wednesday that the municipal government had worked with the Mexican Consulate on the logistics of the cross-border vaccination clinics scheduled for Thursday and Friday at the Mariposa port.

And while similar programs on the California and Texas border have focused on maquiladora workers, Padilla said that city officials offered the opportunity to the general public – anyone 18 or older. Last week, he said, the city took appointments on a first come, first served basis for a total of 1,000 Johnson & Johnson doses.

“(The Mexican Consulate) is supporting us with vaccines and we’re supporting them with the logistics of registering people,” Padilla said, but added that he wasn’t sure about the original source of the vaccine doses.

“We’re fighting for everyone to be vaccinated, to have a wider coverage in Nogales, Sonora and Arizona, and decrease the spread of infections,” he said.

Padilla said he didn’t have numbers or percentages of people who have been vaccinated in Nogales, Sonora, but it’s almost certainly lower than in Santa Cruz County, where the CDC reports a nearly 95-percent rate of full COVID-19 vaccination among people 12 and older. (That figure is likely inflated somewhat by out-of-county residents who received shots here, though local officials insist the distortion is minimal.)

In addition to humanitarian motivations, there are economic reasons for binational cooperation on vaccinations at the border.

More vaccinations on the Mexican side could speed up the full re-opening of the U.S.-Mexico border, which the United States closed to non-essential travel from Mexico starting in March 2020, dealing a blow to U.S. border communities that depend heavily on Mexican shoppers. And the maquiladoras whose workers have been prioritized in other cross-border vaccination efforts work at plants largely owned by U.S. companies that assemble products for the U.S. market.

A five-day vaccination blitz in Nogales, Sonora in early July focused on the maquila sector – four of the five vaccination sites were at the factories themselves – and authorities said at the time that as many as 80,000 doses were given during the campaign. That could help explain why the clinics this week at the Mariposa Port of Entry were open to the general public rather than just maquiladora employees.

The binational clinics held this week were also not the first to be conducted in Nogales, according to people with knowledge of the situation, who said that at least one local vaccination clinic had been held previously.

In addition, the UA Public Health spokesperson reached Wednesday, while unable to provide information about the operation of the clinics, provided a link to the Facebook page of the UA Primary Prevention Mobile Health Unit, which had previously posted a solicitation seeking medical professionals to give vaccinations on June 21 and 22 at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry. The clinics were meant “to provide vaccines to those who do not have documents to cross the U.S.-Mexico border,” the ad said.

Previous cross-border vaccination efforts apparently didn’t involve the city of Nogales, Sonora. Padilla, the public health director, said the clinics planned for this week were the only collaborative vaccine efforts that he was aware of that involved the municipal government.

“This is the first time that the city council has done this with the Mexican Consulate across the border,” he said. “We hadn’t had another opportunity before.”

It’s not clear why the consulate and UA haven’t touted the Nogales vaccine program. Other efforts to give U.S. vaccines to maquiladora workers have been highly publicized in the media, including an in-depth story last week in The New York Times that prominently featured the Mexican consul in San Diego and University of California San Diego Health, which is helping run the clinics in San Diego.

The lack of official information has opened the door for rumors that one local health service provider scrambled to correct this week.

The Mariposa Community Health Center, which has been responsible for the bulk of the COVID-19 vaccination effort in Santa Cruz County, reached out to the NI on Wednesday to ask for help correcting information circulating on social media that the vaccination distribution on Thursday would be held at MCHC.

“The event is hosted by the University of Arizona at the Mariposa Port of Entry, not the Mariposa Community Health Center, using the J&J vaccine,” an MCHC spokesman wrote in an email.

(Additional reporting by Cesar Barron.)

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