EDINBURG, Texas – Hidalgo County and McAllen leaders recently held a news conference to announce that thousands of maquiladora workers from Reynosa would cross into the U.S. to be given a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being administered within the Hidalgo International Bridge compound. Maquila workers are bused across the bridge and receive the vaccine from nurses whilst staying on the bus. The bus then returns to Reynosa. 

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez kicked off the news conference. He was joined by Eduardo Olivarez, Hidalgo County’s chief administrative officer for Health & Human Services, McAllen City Commissioner Pepe Cabeza de Vaca, Keith Patridge, president of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and Steve Ahlenius, president of McAllen Chamber of Commerce. 

The other featured speakers were Foylán Yesces Cedillo, Mexico’s consul in McAllen, and Humberto Martinez, president of Index Reynosa, the maquiladora trade association. 

Cortez said the program is called the Essential Economic Trade Initiative.

“It involves vaccinating maquiladora workers in Reynosa with unused COVID-19 vaccines before they expire. Our initial goal is to vaccinate up to 3,000 workers but our hope is we will vaccinate more as we receive more unused vaccines from across the state when they become available,” Cortez said.

“I want to make it clear that no U.S. citizens will be denied any vaccine or anyone who wants one from our area hospitals, private pharmacies, UTRGV, or even our Hidalgo County clinics. This program uses left over vaccines that are soon to expire to vaccinate maquila workers before the vaccines are destroyed.”

Cortez noted that similar programs have been started in San Diego, California, and the Texas border cities of El Paso and Brownsville.

“We think this as a good thing. We view this as a smart, economic move aimed at restoring to normal one of our region’s biggest economic engines, which is the maquiladora industry,” Cortez said.

Cabeza de Vaca said the City of McAllen is “very happy and excited” to participate with Hidalgo County in an important program.

“We also recognize and know about the importance of restoring our cross-border economic activity back to normal. With the help of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, maquiladora workers from Reynosa will be bused across the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge to a secure facility where Hidalgo County healthcare workers will vaccinate them with one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Those workers will be returned to Reynosa fully vaccinated and hopefully remain fully productive employees at a very critical time in our nation’s recovery process,” Cabeza de Vaca said.

Cabeza de Vaca pointed out that the Hidalgo International Bridge annually generates $31 million in revenue to the City of McAllen. McAllen is a part owner of the bridge.

“Not to mention the millions of dollars worth of cargo that crosses through all the Hidalgo County bridges throughout the year. This includes just under 650,000 trucks at the Pharr International Bridge and just under 30,000 trucks at the Anzalduas International Bridge as part of the official supply chain to the manufacturing facilities on the U.S. side of the border,” Cabeza de Vaca said.

Speaking in Spanish, Mexican consul Yesces Cedillo thanked all the stakeholders involved in the program.

“We found out all the relevant aspects in the economy but pardon me to say about the profound human side that has this action. Saving human lives is always something that leaves us in satisfaction beyond the temporary public exercise. This is something that occurred in present day. They are saving lives and preventing disease,” Yesces Cedillo said.

The consul called on local residents to get fully vaccinated. 

“To those who have not done so for fear of getting sick, it’s better to have a little pain in the arm and a fever than to have the virus and be quarantined and to be fighting desperately with the unfortunate people that have been through this,” Yesces Cedillo said. “Don’t hesitate to do it.”

Editor’s Note: Click here to read what MEDC’s Patridge said at the news conference.

Index Reynosa’s Martinez said Reynosa currently has 155 maquila companies employing 137,000 workers. 

“Right now, we are in the process of vaccinating 3,000, but the goal in Reynosa for this vaccine is to reach 86,000 people between the ages of 18 to 39,” Martinez said.

“Today we passed 20 buses with each bus containing 25 people with extreme precaution. They were separately seated from one another with one seat occupied and one empty in order have that control that we’ve always had exaggerated like we planned.”

Martinez said because the maquiladora industry in Reynosa has always had strong health and safety protocols, manufacturers have avoided a large scale spreading of the coronavirus.

“We want to remind you again that we would like to avoid this situation from spreading any further. We know that it has been advancing a little more, but with the vaccines that we are going to be offering this time, we are going to attempt to minimize the spread of the disease with the effort to develop this region economically essential.”

Olivarez said giving COVID-19 vaccines to maquiladora industry workers in Reynosa should be viewed as an essential economic trade initiative.

“We cannot highlight strongly enough. Early on in the pandemic, there was a shortage of ventilators and the circuitry for the ventilators, the tubing. Guess where those are assembled. Guess where those are made. Reynosa.”

Olivarez thanked Index Reynosa and Customs and Border Protection for working with his department.

“Getting the vaccine is critical. Today we vaccinated 500. Today was our test run. We have our team out there. This is just the first phase of a partnership with McAllen and the MEDC, with the maquiladoras. We are starting it off but we are going to hand it off like a professional football team to a bigger team, the City of McAllen, and they are a great team,” Olivarez said.

Olivarez said the City of McAllen has always come through in large scale events. 

“They have always been great partners. So, Hidalgo County, the maquiladora association, and MEDC, are going to partner and we are going to transition operations to the City and that is being coordinated. But to get the thing started, we needed to get operations going. Tomorrow we are looking at a 1,000 vaccines. We have allocated 3,000 for this week. I am looking at getting some additional vaccines next week. We are coordinating with the State of Texas to get more Johnson & Johnson but every single border community is coordinating with the State of Texas. El Paso, Del Rio, Laredo, Brownsville, Hidalgo, we are all working with the state on getting the vaccines in order to help these partners of ours in the community.”

Ahlenius, for the McAllen Chamber, said that in the 21st Century communities cannot operate in silos any more. He said they had to cooperate regionally.

“We are so inter-connected, whether on the U.S. side, in this region, or in Mexico in terms of production and family ties and relationships. And so the sooner we get everybody vaccinated, the sooner the people feel safe and we can open the bridges to non-essential travelers coming back and forth between Mexico and Texas. It is going to be a key for our success,” Ahlenius said.

Ahlenius pointed out that for McAllen alone, retail trade on an annual basis with Mexican nationals is over a billion dollars a year. 

“It is a critical component to our economy. It is a critical component to this region’s economy and it also part of our DNA in terms of relationships. So, I want to commend the judge, the city commission in McAllen, Keith for working to bring this together,” Ahlenius said.

“Without us working together, we will never defeat this virus and we can never get back to that normal that we are all looking forward to. So, I think it is a great opportunity for us just to remember how important getting vaccinated is and how important it is, the relationships that we have between Mexico and Texas.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian marketing intern Melanie Mejía and Rio Grande Guardian audio editor Mario Muñoz assisted on the above story.

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