County To Open Border Covid Test Site Without Additional State, Fed Support
San Diego County is launching free COVID testing at the San Ysidro border crossing. The local action comes months after funding for support at the border never arrived from state and federal agencies.
Hospitals in San Diego’s border region have seen a large volume of coronavirus patients with recent travel to Mexico. The health system leaders and a county official asked the federal government for help with testing or screening at the border, but ultimately California and U.S. officials did not agree to fully fund a local proposal.
The county’s upcoming border testing pilot is expected to open as early as next week at the PedEast entry and will focus on essential workers, said Andrew Pease, finance director for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
“But we typically do not turn anyone away,” Pease said during a county board meeting Tuesday.
Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder called on federal health and immigration officials for support in late April. Van Gorder and a Sharp HealthCare representative sent a letter back when their South Bay hospitals were filling with COVID patients, including many who reported recent travel from Mexico.
“We actually were at a peak on May 2 where it was 47.9%,” Van Gorder said in an interview with KPBS.
County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar also in April sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence.
A Department of Homeland Security doctor visited the region following their requests, and a UC San Diego professor proposed in May a border and worksite testing plan that had county support.
But, Gaspar said, while the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse up to three-quarters of the costs, the state did not agree to fund the remainder.
“I was not present at the meeting with the California Department of Public Health, but was informed by our medical team that the State was unwilling to commit to covering the remaining 25%,” Gaspar said in an emailed statement. “I am disappointed in their decision as the situation at the border is a state and federal issue. The expatriate population in need of care has fallen squarely in the lap of our San Diego County hospital partners and adds vulnerability to our recovery as a region.”
State and federal agencies would not provide interviews despite repeated requests.
The proposal from UC San Diego, which was drafted by the School of Medicine’s Dr. Linda Hill, doesn’t actually list a price tag but details resources needed for various options. Those included testing for up to 4,000 people a day, or about 5% of border crossers, at three ports of entry along California’s border with Mexico and a worksite monitoring element. That option would’ve provided hundreds of daily tests at businesses that employ workers who regularly cross the border.
The new county border testing site will be funded by federal COVID relief funds and offer up to 200 tests a day.
Gaspar said the county couldn’t cover the remaining 25% of the UCSD proposal on its own because its relief funds were in high demand.
“Given many competing demands for our limited CARES Act funding including child care, food insecurity, schools, and small business assistance, the County was unable to allocate the additional resources needed,” the supervisor said. “We have shifted our focus to a more modest effort that will include a testing site North of the border that is similar to our County drive through testing sites.”
Scripps’ Van Gorder said the need has lessened now that so much time has passed.
“I'm a little less alarmed than I was when back in May when we were seeing close to 50% of the patients in Chula Vista having crossed the border — that's dropped in almost half. Now, again, we could see another spike,” Van Gorder said.
He said testing materials and personal protective equipment are already limited and more non-COVID patients are now taking up hospital beds, but Scripps will continue to adjust to the situation.
HHSA finance chief Pease said the border testing could open as early as Wednesday.