Ambulance (copy)

A Nogales Fire Department ambulance is seen at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in this photo from October 2013. In the past two months, NFD has responded to 15 calls at local ports of entry from Mexico involving patients with COVID-like symptoms.

Gov. Doug Ducey suggested during a White House conference call with governors on Monday that the state’s sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is due in part to U.S. citizens living in Mexico crossing the border for treatment in Arizona.

However, there was little indication in Nogales that the arrival of patients from Mexico has contributed significantly to a surge in infections that has seen Arizona record regular daily increases of more than 3,000 cases, and reach a record of 2,453 people hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

According to Nogales Fire Chief Jeff Sargent, his personnel had responded to 15 calls at the port of entry for patients with COVID-like symptoms within the past two months – an average of one every four days. He was unable to confirm whether the patients eventually tested positive, or what their nationality was.

A story published May 27 in the Washington Post reported that “small community hospitals in Southern California, some of the poorest in the state, have been flooded with Americans who have fallen ill and crossed the border. They are retirees and dual citizens, Americans working in Mexico or visiting family there.”

Other news outlets have published similar stories from Southern California, and the storyline has gained traction among those who challenge the idea that the re-opening of states’ economies has been primarily responsible for subsequent surges in coronavirus cases.

In Santa Cruz County, Ariz., the only local hospital, Holy Cross, is not equipped to handle serious COVID-19 cases and primarily works to stabilize patients before they are transported to Pima County facilities.

The Rio Rico Fire District, the only local fire agency that’s licensed to conduct hospital-to-hospital transports from Holy Cross, made 82 total coronavirus-related transports from June 1-25, said Deputy Chief Richard Johnson. However, he was unable to say how many of those patients might have come from Mexico, since RRFD does not make pickups at the ports of entry.

Asked whether significant numbers of U.S. citizens from Mexico had been going to the Mariposa Community Health Center for COVID-19-related care or testing, chief medical officer Dr. Eladio Pereira said: “We have not seen evidence of that.”

“The cases that we have seen have been acquired by exposure to a person in and from Arizona,” he said.

Ducey’s remarks during Monday’s call came after Vice President Mike Pence asked the governor if he was seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in people under 35, and an increase in Americans who lived in Mexico but were seeking care in Arizona.

Ducey replied: “We are seeing both. We are seeing as our younger cohort that is testing in large numbers, in terms of positivity, and then it is Americans with dual citizenship that (are) seeking the superior healthcare of our system in our border counties. So both those combinations add to our numbers.”

The state’s numbers reached 63,030 confirmed cases on Thursday, with 1,490 deaths.

A spokesman for Ducey’s office did not respond to a request for data that would support the governor’ assertion about border-crossing COVID-19 patients, or a question as to whether the phenomenon might be occurring at the state’s other ports of entry.

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