By Laura Gottesdiener
MEXICALI, Mexico/EL CENTRO, Calif., (Reuters) – Coronavirus cases are surging in a scorching hot desert region straddling south California and a city near Mexico’s Tijuana, leading to saturated hospitals, a cross-border overspill of patients and airlifts from rural U.S. clinics.
Mexicali, capital of the Mexican state of Baja California, has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID cases in Mexico, with its main hospitals at four-fifths capacity, state health department data shows.
Only a few miles beyond the border fence, Imperial County, California, is coping with the most COVID hospitalizations per capita in the state – well over twice the rate of the next highest county.
For the past two weeks, Imperial County’s largest hospital has used helicopters to fly some patients to other clinics, including those over 100 miles (160 km) away in San Diego and Palm Springs, because its intensive care unit is full.
“We continue to be in a surge with all our hospital beds being full,” Judy Cruz, emergency room director for El Centro Regional Medical Center, told Reuters on Friday.
Part of the wave of patients are U.S. citizens who live in Mexico and cross to seek care, Cruz said.
At least 57 patients have arrived in ambulances that picked them up at the Calexico port of entry in the last two weeks, some unconscious by the time they reached El Centro, she added.
Many other cases are among the county’s residents.
Like other heavily trafficked California border regions – where thousands of trucks and essential workers cross back and forth every day – Imperial Valley’s infections are surging, with the number of confirmed COVID cases tripling throughout the month of May.
Over the past two weeks the county has registered 406 cases per every 100,000 residents — more than five times the state average.
Mexicali Fire Department Chief Ruben Osuna said his paramedics sometimes have to wait hours to deliver suspected COVID patients to hospitals because emergency rooms are saturated.
Some never make it, he added, saying three to four suspected COVID patients die in their homes in the city every day.
Emergency room doctor Ruben de la Torre, who works in both Mexicali General Hospital and IMSS Regional Hospital No. 30 — the city’s two largest COVID facilities — said widespread outbreaks among medical workers left both hospitals dangerously short staffed.
The Mexican government says health workers make up at least a fifth of coronavirus cases nationwide.
If Mexicali’s infection rate fails to level off soon “people are going to die right outside the hospital,” de la Torre said.
IMSS and Baja California Health Department officials did not immediately respond to questions about staffing or infection among healthcare workers.
In Imperial County, Cruz said her hospital was unlikely to empty out anytime soon.
“Once they reopen things, I am concerned we will have another surge,” she said.
(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)