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Coronavirus Health

El Paso region expands COVID-19 fight with new public-private partnership

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A leading international science and technology company will assist the El Paso region in efforts to slow COVID-19 infections and improve preparations for impacts of the disease, officials announced on Thursday.

Battelle, a nonprofit company based in Columbus, Ohio, will be a key player in a new COVID-19 Enhanced Regional Public Health Partnership, which brings together local governments, private business and philanthropic foundations to address unique challenges in a binational, three-state region.

“They will work directly with the public health department. And Battelle provides some resources and assets that are unique,” Mayor Dee Margo said. The company has extensive experience in analyzing public health data to shape policy responses.

Dr. Nicole Brennan, director of health research at Battelle, has been stationed in El Paso as part of this new partnership. 

“Through the partnership, we are evaluating testing, personal protective equipment, triage and monitoring plans, hospital surge capacity planning, bi-national coordination and communications,” Brennan said. “One of our first orders of business is to make sure that we are able to get the right types of protective equipment into the hands of the nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, and others in the region who are at high-risk for infection.”

Local efforts showing strain

The new public health partnership comes at a time when El Paso’s COVID-19 response, led by the city’s Department of Public Health, has shown increasing signs of strain. 

The city-county public health authority, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, twice said incorrectly last week that El Paso’s COVID-19 testing rate was higher than the national average. He was comparing El Paso’s current testing rate to weeks-old national data. 

Margo has repeatedly said El Paso had no shortage of COVID-19 tests. But until this week, public health officials couldn’t provide data on the numbers of people tested in El Paso because it hadn’t been tracking tests at private labs, which is where the vast majority of COVID-19 tests have occurred. 

Ocaranza said on Tuesday that 6,700 tests had been conducted in El Paso County, which is a rate of 8 tests per 1,000 residents. That rate is about 50 percent below the national figure at the time, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Ocaranza also acknowledged at the Tuesday press conference that the city hasn’t compiled demographic information from negative private lab tests, meaning public health officials have little understanding of who has been tested in El Paso.

El Paso public health officials also appear to have struggled to respond this week to COVID-19  outbreaks at an El Paso immigration detention facility and in rural areas of the county.

Priorities for the public-private partnership

Battelle’s assistance and other enhanced efforts in the public-private partnership are being paid for by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and other donors, and the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation will oversee coordination efforts. No additional taxpayer money is involved, organizers said.

Battelle employees prepare used personal protection equipment for decontamination in the company’s Critical Care Decontamination System. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

The partnership has three key focus areas, according to a news release announcing its formation:

● Provide critical resources to protect the public and our essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, especially health-care workers and employees of other essential businesses such as utilities, grocery stores, restaurants and the regional medical device manufacturing industry,

● Work with city and regional officials to coordinate care and enhance communication among the many health-care and non-healthcare organizations stepping up to help,

● Tackle this pandemic as a region, creating a coordinated and seamless response between El Paso, Ciudad Juárez, and Las Cruces.

“I think that when you look at this, it’s, as we all know, unprecedented.I can’t think of anything in my history that’s even close to being as big a deal as this,” said Emma Schwartz, president of the MCA Foundation. “And I don’t think that there’s a community or country in the world that was as adequately prepared as they needed to be for this ,with good reason. We have a lot of other priorities going on in our day to day activities before this.”

Regional history with Battelle

She said El Paso officials have been trying to engage with Battelle for about a decade. MCA saw Battelle as an organization that could help El Paso’s emerging biotech industry and those conversations resumed a few months ago, Schwartz said.

She was impressed by a white paper Battelle produced in mid-March on how governments and communities could respond to COVID-19. She thought Battelle’s global experience would be helpful in the El Paso region’s COVID-19 response.

“I think that we’re an unusually complex community because we are a tri-state border community. So we as El Paso don’t control everything as much as maybe some other communities do, which adds complexity,” said Schwartz, who has a master’s degree in public health from UCLA

El Paso-Juarez assets in COVID-19 fight

She said the El Paso-Juarez region also has some unique assets that could assist the global fight against COVID-19, which Battelle could help leverage. A number of manufacturers in the region produce personal protective equipment that is badly needed by medical workers and first responders. China has been the main provider of PPE, but that supply was disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak there.

Emma Schwartz

“And so it was like this double whammy of the world needs a lot more PPE to deal with this pandemic and the major supplier of PPE had to shut down for several months, reducing what they could supply,” Schwartz said. “So Mexico and our region became incredibly important to the medical supply distributors for PPE. And so I think that it becomes imperative for us to make sure that we don’t have an outbreak that would result in massive shutdowns of our medical device manufacturers.”

Schwartz said the partnership will address key questions that must be answered before government and business officials can move to reopen the regional economy.

“So now maybe it’s not about testing the sickest of the sick or people who are symptomatic, but doing sample testing of employees before they can go back to work who are asymptomatic. How are we going to fulfill that need? Who’s going to pay for that? So that’s one question,” she said.

“How do we make sure that we have enough PPE for all of our frontline responders and our medical professionals? Well, now we need to make sure that we have enough PPE for employers to distribute to their employees who might now have to go back to work. And then the contact tracing, of course, is one of the key tenets of any public health response. How are we doing it? Are we being effective and how do we do it when we have this free flow of traffic coming from Mexico?”

Correction: Emma Schwartz received her master’s degree from UCLA. A previous version of this story incorrectly said the degree came from Stanford University. That is where she received her bachelor’s degree.

Cover photo: An employee of Battelle, a nonprofit science and technology company that will assist the El Paso region in its COVID-19 response, prepares used personal protective equipment for decontamination. (Photo courtesy of Battelle)

Disclosure: Emma Schwartz is an El Paso Matters member/donor.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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