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DHS Official Addresses Coronavirus Needs Related To Cross-Border Cases In San Diego Visit

Dr. Alejandro Villegas prepares to enter a COVID-19 patient's room in the int...

Photo by Zoë Meyers / inewsource

Above: Dr. Alejandro Villegas prepares to enter a COVID-19 patient's room in the intensive care unit at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, May 1, 2020. The 75-year-old patient was extubated the previous day after being on a ventilator for 25 days.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official landed in San Diego on Friday to assess the COVID-19 situation near the border. The visit comes weeks after San Diego hospital and county representatives requested federal support with the high volume of illnesses in the South Bay.

Scripps Health and Sharp HealthCare hospitals in Chula Vista have been inundated with COVID-19 patients largely linked to cross-border traffic of essential workers and American expats seeking care. Leaders of the facilities and County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar have in separate letters called on the federal government to provide support, including medical screenings at ports of entry.

DHS Senior Medical Officer of Operations Dr. Alexander Eastman met with the county's public health team and hospital officials, including from Scripps and Sharp, during his two-day visit, Gaspar said in a Tuesday phone interview with KPBS.

Reported by Tarryn Mento

Gaspar, who wrote to the vice president in mid-April, said they discussed strategies to better manage the flow of potential cases coming across the border, including using federal funds for a possible pop-up medical facility at the San Ysidro crossing.

"We could provide free health screening and testing to individuals that are part of that essential workforce. We also could better triage people that came across the border that were symptomatic," she said.

She said the temporary facility's clinicians can divert patients who don't need emergency care from hospitals and possibly allow them to quarantine at a hotel room obtained by the county.

"We have to acknowledge that in Mexico, you have very different family structures. Often you have multiple generations living together in the same home and it becomes difficult to quarantine — I think about my own home and the ability for me to quarantine if I became sick," Gaspar said.

That cost of a hotel stay for authorized border crossers who become sick may be reimbursable by Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said. It may also cover rooms for health care workers who live in Mexico but want to remain in the U.S. during the pandemic.

Gaspar added that she hoped the facility would be operated by a local health care provider, not the county, and staffed with clinicians who have been furloughed due to halted medical procedures and low emergency department visits.

However, the discussions are preliminary and official decisions will come after a formal proposal is drafted and funding sources are confirmed. Gaspar said county officials will contact the governor about covering a portion of the costs with the majority expected to come from the federal government.

DHS did not respond to email messages from KPBS requesting an interview and to confirm Eastman's visit, but the official posted on Twitter about his time in San Diego.

"A pleasure to meet and work with a fantastic group of leaders from (San Diego County). Improving our response requires hard work, shoulder to shoulder (masked, of course) with critical partners!" Eastman tweeted on Saturday.

Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder confirmed in an email that he and Sharp's executive consultant for COVID-19 response met with Eastman during his time in San Diego. The pair sent a letter to DHS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last month.

"He did say that his visit was in response to our letter and it was his job to find the ground truth and fix any problems," Van Gorder wrote on Monday.

Van Gorder said representatives from three other hospitals participated but he would not provide further details.

A UC San Diego Health associate chief medical officer also tweeted about meeting Eastman.

Gaspar said her initial letter on April 19 promoted high-level discussions with federal officials but she was alerted on May 6 about the possible visit from Eastman ahead of his trip to Alaska.


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