With supplies, tests and even simple answers in short supply during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Juarez, the group at highest risk are the first line responders in the medical community.
As of Wednesday, Juarez medical officials reported 254 COVID-19 positive cases and 63 deaths, far below the numbers reported in El Paso.
Last Sunday, the head of the Chihuahua state Health Department in Juarez, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, attributed the increasing number of positive cases in Juarez to being located next to the country that is the epicenter of the disease.
Yet, these numbers don’t add up for this community, especially compared to the cases reported in El Paso. With the population of the Juarez area just over 1.2 million, the number seems abnormally low – and dangerously so – to everyone involved.
Even Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada has questioned the numbers and has expressed urgency to get more people tested.
In addition to his plea for additional testing, in an effort to sanitize “the city’s air” and “reduce the COVID-19 cases,” Cabada sent a helicopter to spray some Juarez’ neighborhoods with a chlorine-water mix.
Above the seemingly inconsistent numbers, information and public actions taken in the battle against COVID-19, are the concerns of those on the frontline of the battle against the virus.
According to sources I spoke to – who did not want their names published – these medical professionals from the Mexican Government Social Security (IMSS) Hospital #66, shared the difficulties they’re encountering during this pandemic.
And the confusion and delays start with first contact with ill patients.
First, people who show presumptive coronavirus symptoms are sent to an emergency (ED) physician to be evaluated. Once the ED physician determines the condition of the patient, someone from the laboratory staff will retrieve a sample to test the patient. These samples are sent to Chihuahua City, the state capital.
Before the COVID-19 cases increased in Juarez, the samples from the presumptive cases were send to Mexico City to be analyzed. Either way, the results still are delayed far beyond what the medical professionals need.
Afterward the sample, the patient is sent to an isolation floor designated in the hospital, where they wait, for both the results and treatment.
“I got tested for Coronavirus on April 16th, and to this day, I am still waiting for my results,” John a medical professional at IMSS shared (name changed due to fear of retaliation for speaking to the press)
Medical professionals I spoke with say some patients would present symptoms, and before they get their results, they die, and their families never get a clear diagnosis.
There is some uncertainty due to the long waits for the results amid the medical staff, “I have no doubt I can be treating positive COVID-19 cases; unfortunately, because the results take so long to get to the patient’s hands we don’t have a concrete answer whether the patient is a confirmed case or not,” said another one of the nurses from the hospital.
In addition to the testing and test result lag, the medical staff has been instructed to report these deaths as “atypical pneumonia,” which is how staff identifies those cases that were never diagnosed.
Then, as hospital protocols do not allow for an autopsy to be performed and with some funeral homes opting for direct cremation, there is no way to define whether these people died due to COVID-19 complications or not. Hence, these deaths are not being included in the official COVID-19 death report.
Several Mexican news outlets and many citizens have raised their concerns through social media.
On Tuesday, in response to the uproar over the possible under reporting of COVID-19 deaths, Undersecretary of Prevention and the Promotion of Health, Dr. Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez declared that the association of the atypical pneumonia diagnosis and
COVID-19, is “an obssesion.”
López-Gatell explained that during the COVID-19 outbreak, every pneumonia should be categorized as a coronavirus complication until tests prove otherwise. However, according to officials at IMSS Hospital #66, this has not been the case.
Additionally, John and another nurse who works at this hospital claimed that the medical staff is not being provided with enough medical protective equipment, even for the ones who have immediate interaction with COVID-19 cases.
Some medical workers have had to buy their own face masks, fearing they would jeopardize their families’ well-being.
Most of the supplies this hospital received are thanks to the donations from private corporations like Tecma.
Nonetheless, medical workers from the Hospital #66 are afraid their supervisors have not been forthcoming with information as to the current status of the medical gear.
“Recently, the hospital’s directors reduced our personal equipment to one pair of gloves, face visor, gown, surgical masks per shift,” John
“Though we have noticed the hospital received donations, our supervisor tells us there are not enough supplies,” a nurse (who declined to give her name, for fear of reprisals from the hospital) added.
In response to these cuts, medical staff has organized mini-strikes where they tell their supervisors they will not work their shift, if they don’t get the proper medical gear.
The supervisors then provide minimal medical gear in order to get them back to work. And then the cycle repeats.
Since the medical staff is provided with the protective equipment only when they start their day, John described the typical environment that he and fellow medical professionals are exposed to each and every shift.
“We have 12-hour shifts, 12-hours of not drinking water, going to the restroom, and running from one side to the other to help patients.”
“We are facing situations that are affecting us physically and emotionally, where our supervisors are not providing us medical gear to treat infected patients… we don’t feel comfortable helping patients, while threatening our own health,” John lamented.