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Migrants keep medical providers busy on border

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SUNLAND PARK – In the early morning hours Wednesday, Border Patrol agents called for medical assistance after a large group of migrants slipped across the border.

After Border Patrol EMTs screened 180 migrants taken into custody near Mount Cristo Rey, they called for medical help for some in the group.

“Sunland Park Emergency Medical Service responded to the scene where they provided medical attention,” according to a Border Patrol press release about the group.

Requesting medical assistance has become routine for Border Patrol agents in New Mexico, where large groups of Central Americans, mostly parents with children and juveniles traveling on their own, cross the border.

After turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents, the vast majority ask for asylum and, increasingly, for medical treatment.

“Every single day we’re transporting at least one or two individuals, if not more, to the hospital,” said Joe Romero, supervisory Border Patrol Agent in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico.

The seven Central Americans in Sunland Park who were sent to a hospital Wednesday were “primarily suffering from dehydration and stomach issues,” Romero said.

Border Patrol agents accompany migrants to the hospital. “If they get admitted to the hospital, then our agents are assigned hospital watch, which means they don’t go out to the field,” Romero said.

Agents have encountered migrants with a range of medical conditions from respiratory illnesses to skin disorders.

A man from Central America who asked for medical care in Lordsburg in late January was suffering from a flesh-eating bacteria. The bacteria is not contagious.

One media outlet reported that migrants who crossed the border in the Bootheel had Legionnaire’s disease, but Border Patrol said it had not found any cases. The disease is contracted by inhaling a bacteria through microscopic water droplets in mist or vapor. It can cause a severe type of lung infection or pneumonia.

Some migrants crossing the border have been diagnosed with pneumonia and other serious illnesses, including tuberculosis, parasites and gastrointestinal problems, according to CBP.

Wide screenings

After two Guatemalan children in Border Patrol custody in New Mexico died in December, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ordered medical screenings for all children in custody, with a focus on those younger than 10.

The cause of death for the two Guatemalan children, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, has not been released by the medical examiner’s offices in Albuquerque and El Paso, which performed autopsies.

From October through January, Border Patrol took 25,710 “family units” into custody in the El Paso sector alone, according to CBP data. A family unit includes a parent and at least one child.

Map of border communitiesAs the number of migrant families crossing the border into New Mexico grows, area hospitals have been called on to help.

“What we’re primarily seeing is a lot of exhaustion, a lot of dehydration, malnutrition. You know these patients have traveled a huge distance,” said Doug Oaks, Gila Regional Medical Center director of marketing. The 68-bed acute care hospital in Silver City is one of the medical facilities treating patients brought in by Border Patrol.

In late January, the hospital serving Grant County hosted the “first Southwest New Mexico regional consortium to address medical facility issues emerging from the migrant crisis.”

The gathering brought together representatives from the New Mexico Department of Health, Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, Mimbres Memorial Hospital in Deming, Hidalgo Medical Services in Lordsburg, Mountain View Hospital in Las Cruces and BorderRAC of El Paso, a regional advisory council for the emergency health system. The two-hour discussion addressed a range of topics including communication across the region, resource management and infection prevention.

“We haven’t dealt with any kind of contagions or anything like that,” Oaks said. Gila Regional Medical Center gets from one to 10 migrant patients a day.

Minor problems

Hidalgo Medical Services, an outpatient clinic in Lordsburg, regularly helps Border Patrol in caring for migrant patients.

“We’ve always taken care of migrants. When the Border Patrol would bring them in basically it’s a minor ailment,” said Dan Otero, CEO of Hidalgo Medical Services. “Cough, colds, blisters from walking, from what I’m being told by my clinical staff.”

He said migrants with more serious issues were sent to the hospitals in Silver City or Deming.

“I’m not aware of any infectious diseases that have come through our clinic at all. You see the same stuff in the migrants that you would see from anybody in the states in reality,” Otero said.

The number of migrant patients at the clinic jumped from three or four to as many as 30 patients a month between October and December, when large groups of Central Americans began crossing the border in the Antelope Wells area.

But in the past couple of weeks the clinic “did not have any migrants coming in,” Otero said.

One reason is that Border Patrol now has medical personnel available on site for migrants held in Lordsburg.

“I can confirm they do have medical providers in their station in Hidalgo County now,” Otero said.

At the same time, the number of large groups of migrants crossing the border in the Bootheel region has sharply declined in recent weeks, according to Border Patrol.

As more groups cross near Sunland Park, the demand for migrant medical services is likely to shift to Doña Ana County, along with the need for the Border Patrol to respond.

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