BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Leaders from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to help their regions cope with the coronavirus.
In the case of El Paso, County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego wants a halt to the easing of rules regarding social distancing. They believe COVID-19 still poses a great risk.
In the case of the Valley, state Sen. Eddie Lucio wants more funding for smaller border communities.
Below are two letters sent yesterday to Gov. Abbott:
State Senator Luico’s letter:
May 8, 2020
The Honorable Greg Abbott Governor, State of Texas State Capitol, 2S.1
Austin, Texas 78711
Dear Governor Abbott:
I write to you as a follow-up to a correspondence I sent you two months ago, on March 19, 2020, in which I requested greater resources, extending drive-thru testing, and increasing the availability of tests in Lower Rio Grande Valley. In the same letter, I also argued the need for increased resources to the Valley is even more acute because the Valley has the most vulnerable and uninsured populations in Texas and because it neighbors Mexico. I thank you and our state agencies — especially the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and our Texas Guard — for making increased testing and personal protection equipment available in our region.
With a sense of urgency, I write to you today to restate the need for increased resources for our border communities, especially those along the border region because as you aptly stated in March, this invisible disease “knows no geographic and no jurisdictional boundaries and threatens the lives of our fellow Americans across this entire country.” I am also very thankful that on April 23rd, you announced that Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, and Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) Chief Nim Kidd were working together to have the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension provide local jurisdictions training regarding the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In fact, I helped inform the local mayors of Cameron County of this critical training in a conference call I hosted with them on April 30. I urged my mayors to sign up for the training since it would greatly assist them understand, acquire, and administer these federal disaster relief funds.
Many of the smaller communities that I represent, those with less than 500,000 in population, continue to ask for greater guidance on the specific mechanism that our state has developed for them to receive critical assistance. These small community officials have shared with me how their tax base has been eroded due to the mandatory “stay-at-home” orders, which you allowed to expire on April 30. As the criteria and distribution of the state’s share of the $11.2 billion continue to be refined, I respectfully implore you to consider investing an allocation on smaller cities and communities that are within the counties that are on the immediate border with Mexico. Again, as you aptly argued in March, this invisible disease “knows no geographic and no jurisdictional boundaries,” and as such, this highly communicable disease puts a greater strain and poses a bigger threat to our smaller cities in Texas who face daily international commute from Mexico. Since these communities have lower per capita income and tax bases than any other similarly populated areas in Texas, as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, I respectfully ask you to consider having a targeted allocation for these communities since they are so vital to the state’s international commerce and trade interests with Texas’ number one trade partner.
I thank you once again for directing Texas A&M AgriLife Extension to be providing training to our local officials and I respectfully ask you to consider strengthening the accessibility of these funds to our smaller communities in need by affording them the greatest amount of flexibility possible so along as TDEM’s high standards of accountability can be met. I trust that everyone agrees that TDEM’s record of accomplishment in helping our communities after a disaster through their accounting and record keeping standards has yielded the highest reimbursement amounts in the nation.
As IGR Chair, I stand ready to assist you in everything that you may need to continue to inform our smaller communities in Texas how they can acquire and receive their portion of critical CARES Act funding. I thank you in advance for continuing to safeguard our border communities which are critical to our state economy through their unique international commerce and trade nature, and for considering to provide a funding allocation to smaller communities within counties that immediately border Mexico.
Eddie Lucio, Jr.
Texas Senator, District 27
Chairman, Texas Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s letter:
The Honorable Greg Abbott Governor of Texas
PO Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711
Dear Governor Abbott,
During this unprecedented time in history, national, state and local governments have attempted to navigate difficult decisions to ensure the health and safety of our communities while balancing the interests of our economy. As a fellow elected official, I understand those challenges and acknowledge and thank you for your work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there still remains continuing challenges and unique circumstances in my community that warrant further consideration. Therefore, I am requesting, in my capacity as County Judge of El Paso County, a proclamation by you determining that El Paso County merits special consideration and restrictions in order to achieve containment of the COVID-19 virus.
The basis for this request is as follows:
1. Disproportionate impact on minority populations. The CDC confirms that “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” According to the CDC, factors such as living conditions, work conditions, underlying health conditions and access to care are suspected as causing this disproportionate impact on minority populations contracting COVID-19CEl Paso fits squarely into these risk factors. According to the most recent Census data from July 1, 2019, El Paso is 83% Hispanic, the median household income is $44,597 and approximately 23.8% of El Pasoans under 65 years old lack health insurance. The demographics alone of our community warrant a cautious approach to combatting COVID-19 in El Paso. Significantly, the Federal Health Resources & Services Administration has designated El Paso County as a medically underserved area.4
2. Steadily increasing cases. President Trump’s Guidelines to Open up America include regional Gating Criteria that should be satisfied before moving to Phase 1 (opening community). The two criteria require either 1) a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period, or 2) a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests). El Paso fails to satisfy either of the President’s critical criteria of a downward trajectory of positive cases or positive test rates within a 14-day period. Indeed, over the last 14 days, El Paso’s cases have significantly increased from 802 to 1322. Also, during this time period, deaths from COVID-19 have increased from 12 to 32 people. The increase in both new positive cases and deaths has caused the positive test rate to increase as well. Therefore, neither of the White House’s gating criteria has been met.
3. El Paso has not reached its peak. El Paso County has been under a Stay at Home, Work Safe Order since March 24, 2020. Even with these restrictions, we continue to see an upward trajectory of our cases. I feel these restrictions have contributed to minimizing the spread of the virus but unfortunately, additional time is needed for El Paso to reach its peak while minimizing the number of deaths in our community. El Paso experienced its first confirmed cases on March 15, 2020; this was a full 9 days after the first confirmed case in Texas. While other jurisdictions have peaked and are now leveling off and in some cases declining, El Paso is not yet in a similar position.
4. El Paso’s testing rates are low. El Paso’s testing rate for COVID-19 is 0.99% of the County population. This rate is woefully low. Obviously, adequate testing is key to helping El Paso quickly identify infected people, and trace and isolate their contacts. We know that this strategy can help prevent more waves of illness. We also know that even if adequate testing can be obtained in El Paso, additional time is needed to ensure that our neighbors in New Mexico and Mexico are capable of performing these same safety measures. According to the World Health Organization, the positive test rate of a population should be no higher than 10%. Positive test rates higher than 10% suggest that more testing of the population is needed. Currently, El Paso County has a positive test rate of 14.08%. El Paso is far from this measure.
5. El Paso is part of a multi-regional area. El Paso County is in a geographically unique situation unlike any other County in Texas. As you know, El Paso sits on the border of New Mexico and Mexico. And while the vibrancy of our community is dependent upon the important economic and social inter-dependence with our neighbors to the South and West, it is clear that the control of COVID-19 is further complicated in El Paso by the intertwining of approximately 2,370,771 people in a closely knit regional area. Unfortunately, El Paso’s COVID-19 data only takes into account the population of El Paso County and not the population in New Mexico or Mexico where the combined population of these neighboring communities exceeds a million people. While El Paso has made valiant efforts to slow the spread of the virus, it cannot control what occurs in another state or country.
6. Based on the foregoing, I am requesting that:
i. All current restrictions remain in place until El Paso County sees a downward trajectory of positive cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14- day period (flat or increasing volume of tests);
ii. For the planned May 18th re-openings, as indicated in Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA-21, of gyms and exercise facilities, manufacturing services, and office workers in offices, we ask that the reopening of these services be suspended until El Paso County sees a downward trajectory of positive cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests);
iii. For non-essential services already opened, no further increase in capacity be allowed until El Paso County sees a downward trajectory of positive cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests);
iv. That no further non-essential services unscheduled at this time for opening, be allowed to open in El Paso until El Paso County sees a downward trajectory of positive cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests);
v. Given the data that confirms the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on minority populations and the low rate of testing in El Paso County, I am requesting that you increase testing and contact tracing efforts in El Paso County. While the deployment of the Strike Force is helpful, we need more testing and contact tracing that goes beyond just focusing on those that may be symptomatic or in a hot spot. El Paso is in the process of formulating a plan that will provide testing for a minimum of up to 5% of the El Paso County population, but our efforts alone will not get us there. As Governor, you have the ability to advocate and support increased testing measures and to coordinate tracing efforts to ensure the health and safety of your constituents in El Paso. These needs are crucial before further reopening our economy.
This request is supported by many public officials in El Paso, many of whom have signed this letter below. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you in advance for your serious consideration.
Editor’s Note: Judge Samaniego’s letter was signed by all the El Paso county commissioners.
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