UPDATE: Some ‘clinically-suspicious COVID-19’ cases recover after isolation at migrant tent camp

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Volunteers express concerns over news of possible COVID-19 cases

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A Border Report story this week announcing 17 “clinically-suspicious coronavirus” cases at a camp where 3,000 asylum-seekers live in Matamoros, Mexico, has stirred concern among volunteers and families living in the camp who say they were not aware of the cases, many of which are already recovered.

The story, published on Wednesday, quoted Helen Perry, director of Global Response Management (GRM), a non-governmental organization that has provides free camp medical care. On Thursday morning, Perry told Border Report she stands by those numbers and reiterated the need for diagnostic testing equipment at the camp and a faster response by Mexican officials to contain the virus.

Helen Perry, a nurse practitioner and director of Global Response Management, is seen on Jan. 17, 2020, inside one of the medical tents where she administers care to asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I stick by the 17,” Perry said Thursday via phone from the camp across from Brownsville, Texas. “Since March 12, we have identified 17 cases of clinically-suspicious COVID-19. Some have recovered.”

She said over the course of the past month she has noted 17 patients she suspects — but are not definitive — to show symptoms of coronavirus and she has taken precautionary measures. But she says it is not enough. Her organization along with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley have been working with Mexican and American officials to be allowed to cross diagnostic testing equipment so they can know for certain if someone has the virus. They also want to open a 20-bed hospital on-site specifically to treat COVID-19 patients.

“I’m not saying there are 17 people in active isolation,” Perry said. “Some of them have already gone through isolation, gotten better and are no longer having problems. Some have had tests done. Some have been refused tests.”

Since March 12, we have identified 17 cases of clinically-suspicious COVID-19. Some have recovered.”

Helen Perry, director of Global Response Management

Perry explained that currently, one man is being isolated who is still exhibiting symptoms. She said he was given a COVID-19 test by Mexican authorities, and the test came back negative. But Perry, a nurse practitioner, said she is following guidelines set by the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which require her to quarantine him because she, as the clinician, believes he has the novel virus. She added that the current tests have a “40 percent false-negative rate. So 40 percent of the time it will say you don’t have it when you actually have it.”

“I am a licensed medical provider. We follow WHO and CDC standards,” Perry said. “If they appear clinically suspicious then I treat them that way.”

In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, photo, Helen Perry, left, a nurse practitioner who serves as Global Response Management’s operations director, attends to a migrant at a sidewalk clinic in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Perry said that when she has a patient that she suspects has the coronavirus, she contacts the Mexican medical health authorities for the state of Tamaulipas. So far, the state has come out to the camp and tested four patients — including the man currently in isolation — and three young siblings. The tests on the children are still pending, she said.

Perry said their parents are also considered high-risk but were not tested. The tests on that family were issued a week ago and the children are no longer in the isolation area, and Perry said Thursday that she was uncertain where they went — whether they returned to their tent or to a hotel, which had been her suggestion. All were given masks and told to practice social distancing, she said.

Perry said since the Border Report story ran, several NGO volunteers have called her to complain that they were not informed of the “clinically-suspicious” cases. Border Report also received calls and questions on social media.

“Our job is not to inform the other NGOs of what they should do or not think. My job is to do the medicine. Seventeen cases have been identified since March 12. The numbers don’t change just because they don’t like it,” Perry said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we didn’t know.’ … But we knew this would  happen.”

Perry and other migrant advocates have long feared that the virus could quickly spread if it got into the camp, where asylum-seekers live in close quarters under nylon tents just feet from one another. They often share cooking pots and struggle to adequately maintain hygiene while living on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande.

This Oct. 31, 2019, file photo shows the tent encampment where about 3,000 migrants live in Matamoros, Mexico, on the Rio Grande, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Perry also said she has been frustrated by Mexican officials who she said have not tested all of the patients that she has asked to be tested.

Matamoros officials say there have only been 12 cases of the deadly virus in the city of 450,000, which is significantly low compared to infection rates just across the river in Cameron County, Texas, which has about the same population and so far as had 254 cases and three deaths.

A Border Report story Wednesday quoted the mayor of Juarez, Mexico, calling for more testing citing the city has reported only 47 cases and a whopping 16 deaths — a 34% mortality rate.

Some of the patients have recovered from their symptoms and are back living among the camp, Perry said. Six people who had symptoms are living on the outer edge of the camp.

Andrea Rudnik is in charge of volunteers for the nonprofit group Team Brownsville. She is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It would have been nice if she’d kept us up to date from a month ago,” Andrea Rudnik, co-founder of the volunteer group Team Brownsville told Border Report on Thursday. “It feels not very good.”

Rudnik’s nonprofit organization, along with the nonprofit Angry Tias & Abuelas of the RGV have hired local restaurants to supply meals for the migrants during this pandemic.

“My main concern is for the volunteers. I always want to be transparent so they aren’t walking into a situation they aren’t prepared for,” Rudnik said.

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