EL CENTRO — Even as most California hospitals have avoided an incapacitating surge in coronavirus patients, some facilities near the Mexican border have been overwhelmed. They include El Centro Regional Medical Center here and Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista in San Diego County, which link the spike in COVID-19 patients to their communities’ cross-border lifestyle.
Some U.S. citizens and legal residents who live in Mexico are crossing the border from Tijuana and Mexicali into the United States for treatment. Dr. Juan Tovar, an emergency physician and chief operations executive for Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, said 48 percent of COVID-positive patients who visited the emergency room between May 24 and May 30 said they had recently traveled to Mexico.
That figure jumped to 60 percent between May 31 and June 2. The hospital is about 10 miles from the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere.
Only about 5 percent of COVID-19 patients reported they’d recently been to Mexico at Scripps’ three other emergency rooms farther north, he said.
“We are now transferring COVID-19 patients out of Chula Vista to other Scripps hospitals farther north on a fairly regular basis — 21 over the last week — to help decompress our hospital here,” Tovar said.
About two hours east, ECRMC was so overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients it had to divert some to health care facilities in San Diego, National City and elsewhere. As of Sunday, there had been more than 2,500 confirmed cases in Imperial County, which has the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the state, said Andrea Bowers, special projects coordinator for the county health department.
“We know that our community has family on both sides of the border, so we’re relating the uptick to Mother’s Day weekend,” said Suzanne Martinez, assistant chief nursing officer at ECRMC. “That means more risk as people travel back and forth over the border.”
The accompanying photos by KHN’s Heidi de Marco provide an inside look at ECRMC’s intensive care unit and document efforts to keep patients alive.