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Identifying factors quickly spreading COVID-19 along Arizona’s southern border

Posted at 2:30 PM, Jun 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-24 23:12:15-04

YUMA, AZ — In Arizona, most people know Yuma as the place to stop for gasoline on the way to San Diego. However, it is the fifth most populated county in the state and, now, is quickly becoming a hotbed of coronavirus cases.

Serena Koogle owns a store along Main Street in the city of Yuma. She has been watching the daily count of confirmed cases go up.

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"I think that we are really high right now. I also see that we get huge swings after any kind of event," she said. She also added that she believes the county is "a bit of a hot spot right now" but does not understand where the numbers are coming from.

For that, ABC15 spoke with medical experts who went through those numbers. They believe it is not just one, but many different factors that affect Yuma and Santa Cruz counties.

Dr. Edmond Baker is currently the medical director for Equality Health in Phoenix. He worked for years in Santa Cruz County. Dr. Baker said, "The first thing that people have to understand is that poverty is a public health issue, and we know that the higher the poverty rate the more that patients are susceptible to a lot of chronic diseases that plague the communities."

According to the 2019 U.S. Census, Santa Cruz County has a 24.4% poverty rate. The statewide average is 14%. The poverty rate in Yuma County is at 19.5%. Zip codes in both counties have been at the top of the list for highest spikes in cases on the Arizona Department of Health Services website.

Dr. Baker adds, "Those social determinants, when combined with socioeconomic status and poverty, it just creates – it creates the problem of patients not having access, not having sometimes the literacy rates in order to get good medical care."

He outlined other factors at play, as well.

"Down in Nogales, there's another issue. There are not as many doctors available for as many people that are down there, so, therefore, they have a desert because of lack of access due to not having enough physicians and also financial reasons and transportation reasons because it's so spread out," he said.

Holy Cross Hospital is the only hospital in Nogales. It only has 25 beds and is not equipped to handle severe cases of coronavirus. Those patients must be taken to Pima County for care, about an hour away.

Rural communities are also in need of more staff. Daniel Prevost is the Chief Operating Officer of Mariposa Community Health Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center or FQHC. He said, "Last week, we ran at 140% of our normal capacity, and that's almost exclusively due to people wanting appointments to manage COVID symptoms or potential exposure."

They have had to open new positions to try and keep up with the volume of patients. Prevost explained, "We just don't have enough appointment slots to see all the patients who want to be seen. And, it puts a huge burden, not just on the providers, but also on the nursing staff and support staff."

Medical researchers and county officials believe cross border traffic could be contributing to the spread.

Santa Cruz County Health Director Jeff Terrell said, "Workers that cross from our side cross to work over in Nogales, Sonora, as well as workers from Nogales, Sonora coming here to work in the produce warehouse is another industries; so trying to keep track of those workers is our hardest challenges. So, we work with the Arizona Department of Health Services Border Health to trying to keep track of those workers, as well.”

Mexico is Arizona's top trading partner and accounts for about 30% of the state's exports to foreign markets, according to a study by The University of Arizona.

The Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona is the busiest in the state, particularly for commercial use. Truck drivers were deemed essential during the lockdown, meaning traffic never really stopped through the area.

Now, cases in Mexico are growing rapidly, too. In the border state of Sonora, there are nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19. Cases in Baja California are also increasing, but exact numbers are hard to find. The New York Times found the Mexican government was not reporting hundreds, maybe even thousands, of cases in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, in Yuma County, farming and agriculture make social distancing a challenge.

"In the communities that are underserved, you find that we're in areas that are high touch. Those that are transportation workers. Those who work on farms. Those are in the fast food industry. These are high touch areas who are always around people," Dr. Baker adds.

In the Morley Avenue shopping area, many stores are closed due to the recent outbreak. The few that are open do require masks. Terrell explained how this can cause some major problems for people.

"You gotta understand, that we have a lot of the people down here do travel to those areas to do their shopping, for school clothes for their kids, and so forth. So, they do travel throughout the states, so it is a concern throughout the state. Whether they come down here from Tucson or Phoenix, come down to Nogales, there is a concern that there is a lot of travel.”