BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The Rio Grande Valley is going to have to have a lot more COVID-19 vaccines ready once its border bridges are re-opened to Mexican visa holders.

This is the view of public policy advocate Ron Whitlock, who has been spearheading plans for a pilot project in which visa holders from Matamoros are allowed to come into downtown Brownsville to get their coronavirus shots.

“Tens of thousands of Mexican nationals have been flying into the United States to get their COVID vaccines and there is no reason to think we will not see the same when our land ports of entry re-open,” said Whitlock. “Bob McCreery of McCreery Aviation was telling us recently how he has seen a huge increase in private jets coming in. Mexican nationals want their shots and who can blame them?”

Whitlock pointed out that providers of the COVID-19 vaccine, such as Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and UT-Rio Grande Valley do not ask those requesting a COVID vaccine if they are a U.S. citizen. They have been told by the Texas Department of Health not to ask such questions because that would depress the number of people getting the vaccine. A recent story in The Texas Tribune showed the percentage of Valley residents getting their COVID shot is higher than the statewide average.

“We have to be ready for the time Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas reopens our bridges to non-essential travel. And we all want that to happen in order to boost our economy,” Whitlock said. “We need to have more vaccines ready because there are going to be a lot of people from Tamaulipas that will want to come and get their COVID shots here. And that is a good thing. We need our Valley-Tamaulipas region vaccinated.”

Land ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border could be reopened by Mayorkas to so-called “non-essential” travel at the end of June. U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kyrsten Sinema and others have called on Mayorkas to come up with a plan on how the bridges will be fully re-opened. Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, an American immunologist and head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar that he could not understand why the bridges were still closed to visa holders.

Whitlock said in readiness for the reopening of the land ports, the White House should allow his pilot project in downtown Brownsville to go ahead. Under the plan, visa holders from Matamoros would be offered a wristband when they cross a Brownsville bridge. This would allow them to go to the old HEB building in downtown Brownsville to get their COVID-19 vaccine. 

“We have already got a lot of important people signed up in support of this pilot project. We have Belinda Reininger, who is head of the University of Houston medical branch at UTRGV in Brownsville. Texas Southmost College has already volunteered to get involved with helping to train people to deliver the vaccine. I have met with Brownsville Fire Chief Jarrett Sheldon and Brownsville Public Health Director Dr. Arturo Rodriguez. They tell me they need help, that they are running out of volunteers. We have former Rotary Club Governor Andy Hagen; their clubs in Brownsville and Matamoros have agreed to work together. Andy has agreed to administrate. We have TSTC in Harlingen; the head of their foundation has agreed to assist.”

Whitlock says if his COVID-19 vaccination pilot project in downtown Brownsville works, it could be replicated along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“Let us prove this works. Let us vaccinate the visa holders from Matamoros. That is good for public health in our binational region and good for our economy. If our project works it will show that border bridges can be reopened in a safe manner.”

Whitlock said he hopes to meet with Sens. Cornyn and Sinema, as well as U.S. Reps. Cuellar and Tony Gonzales on their visit to the Valley today in order to secure their support for his pilot project.

Brownsville Fire Department stands ready to help

Sheldon, the Brownsville fire chief, said he stands ready to assist the Whitlock initiative.

“Brownsville is all about innovative thinking. We have a lot of opportunities are ahead of us right now. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to help people?” Sheldon told the Rio Grande Guardian.

City of Brownsville Fire Chief Jarrett Sheldon

Sheldon pointed out that back in November, 2020, his department, working with the City of Brownsville, applied to be a COVID-19 vaccination hub, under the Fire Department’s name. 

“Working with our health department and many city departments and other partners throughout the area we have held successful vaccination drives around,” Sheldon said. “I was reading your story yesterday about all the border cities having a high percentage vaccinated people, higher than the state average. That is great news. Now, the next step for us, with Mr. Whitlock’s project is, let’s open the economy a little bit more and at the same time, save some lives.”

Sheldon also pointed out that his department is working with the U.S. Department of Health to provide vaccinations to migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

“These migrants that are coming over and are being released. They are going to be here in the U.S. We said, why not pilot a program and get them their first initial (COVID vaccine) dose before they go on their way? We are just barely starting with the pilot but, so far, so good. We are getting all our ducks in a row on this one.”

Asked specifically about the Whitlock initiative, Sheldon said: “It will help the whole region. We are ready to help in any way we can. From the Brownsville Fire Department, from the City of Brownsville, from the Brownsville Health Department, we have a lot of great partnerships within the community that have proven effective to hold these mass vaccination sites.”

Asked if he has been in contact with his counterpart in Matamoros about a pilot project to vaccinate Matamoros residents in Brownsville, Sheldon said: “I have not, yet. I know several entities have reached out to the Mexican Consulate’s Office and are working with them. I believe our public health director, Art Rodriguez may have reached out to the Matamoros public health department already.”

Rodriguez could not be reached for comment at press time.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Ron Whitlock and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar. Cuellar has said he supports Whitlock’s pilot project initiative.

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