Hidalgo County launches initiative to vaccinate Reynosa maquiladora employees

EDINBURG — With no shortage of COVID-19 vaccine doses available, Hidalgo County is now looking across the border to distribute their abundance of supply.

On Wednesday, the county launched an initiative to vaccinate employees of the maquiladora industry in Reynosa using vaccine doses that are nearing expiration.

Dubbed the “Essential Economic Trade Initiative,” the program is a partnership between the county, the city of McAllen, Index Reynosa, the Maquiladora trade association and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We view this as a smart economic move aimed at restoring to normal one of our region’s biggest economic engines which is the maquiladora industry,” said County Judge Richard F. Cortez, who noted that other similar initiatives had been launched in other border regions in throughout the U.S.

“I want to make it clear that no U.S. citizen will be denied any vaccine, for anyone who wants one can get one from our area hospitals, private pharmacies, UTRGV or even our Hidalgo County clinics,” Cortez said.

With the help of CBP, workers will be bussed across the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge to a secure location where employees with the Hidalgo County Health Department will administer doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Eventually the county will hand over the operations to the city of McAllen, but to start it off, the county already administered 500 doses on Wednesday with plans to administer a total of 3,000 by the end of the week.

The county is currently working with the state to obtain more doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to Eddie Olivarez, the chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services.

Olivarez explained the choice to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was due to the efficiency of only having to administer one dose but also because the county had plenty of supply that they had to use before they expired.

“The county has Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson,” Olivarez said. “The local people predominantly ask for Moderna and Pfizer. Very few people locally ask for Johnson & Johnson, especially because the Pfizer can be used with 12 years olds and up.”

The need to use the vaccine doses aligned with the regional need for healthy cross-border trade.

“For McAllen alone, retail trade on an annual basis with Mexican nationals is over a billion dollars a year,” said Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. “It is a critical component to our economy, it’s a critical component to this region’s economy, and it’s also part of our DNA in terms of relationship.”

“Without us working together,” he added, “we will never defeat this virus and we can never get back to that normal that we’re all looking forward to.”

Looking just at the maquiladora industry in Reynosa, exports in 2020 were valued at around $23 billion while imports into the U.S. were valued at around $15 billion, according to the county.

It consists of 155 companies and 210 manufacturing plants that employ over 137,000 workers.

Those companies have also employed about 40,000 people on the U.S. side, noted Keith Patridge, president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

“Part of that benefit is the complimentary labor rates and the competitiveness that Mexico, Reynosa supplies to our region,” Patridge said. “And as we have seen these companies grow, all of them, I will tell you, all of them have an operation both on the U.S. side and the Mexico side.”

Consul de Mexico Foylan Yescas Cedillo and President of Reynosa Index Humberto Martinez thanked city and county officials for their efforts.

“Lives are being saved and illness is being prevented,” said Cedillo who then urged the residents here to get vaccinated.

Olivarez emphasized that message as well, saying he knew there were people who were choosing to wait.

“Well, I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” Olivarez said.

He pointed out that, on Monday, the county saw an increase of 30 COVID-19 hospitalizations in less than a 12-hour period. He said the majority of those individuals were younger than 50 years old and that all but two were not vaccinated.

“The two that were, there’s some other medical complications that are involved and we’re looking into that, but the reality is vaccines work on all the variants,” Olivarez said. “The vaccine controls it.”

“Remember, the vaccine doesn’t prevent COVID, it lessens illness and complications to keep you out of the hospital,” he said. “That’s the goal.”