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Rural Tornillo is hardest hit by COVID-19 in El Paso County

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UPDATE: Four new COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Tornillo’s 79853 ZIP code since this story was published, bringing the total as of Sunday to 12. That’s an infection rate of 26.9 per 10,000 people, almost three times the countywide rate.

The rural town of Tornillo has seen the highest COVID-19 infection rates in El Paso County, and community leaders are worried they’re being overlooked.

The nearest testing site is a 30-minute drive. Most of the adult residents are in jobs that are considered essential, so they’re going to work every day. Families live in multi-generational households that include mixed immigration statuses. Many are Spanish speakers.

Tornillo Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio

“Right now, I’m concerned that the numbers are actually higher than the cases are reported, just because I don’t think that my families are going to get tested,” said Rosy Vega-Barrio, superintendent of the 1,000-student Tornillo Independent School District.

The ZIP code that includes Tornillo, about 45 miles southeast of Downtown El Paso, had eight confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. The area has fewer than 4,500 people, according to census estimates. That means Tornillo has an infection rate of 18 per 10,000 residents, 2½ times the total county rate of 7.5 infections for every 10,000 residents, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of Department of Public Health data.

Despite those numbers, Tornillo has never been mentioned in daily news releases from the city of El Paso or in the occasional press conferences by government and health officials.

Georgina Cecilia Pérez of Tornillo is a member of the State Board of Education.

Georgina Cecilia Pérez, a member of the State Board of Education who lives in Tornillo, said socioeconomic conditions make the area vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“High poverty, high mobility, essential workers, no access to health care. All of that is just a little bit more gasoline and a little bit more gasoline and a little bit more gasoline. And my community is literally on fire,” Pérez said.

Little information about new cases

The first COVID-19 case in Tornillo was reported April 3, the second on April 7. Six more cases have been reported since April 16.

Vega-Barrio said the El Paso Department of Public Health has provided little to no information about the infections. More worrisome, the informal community grapevine that usually quickly reports major developments in Tornillo is quiet when it comes to COVID-19.

“When it comes down to COVID cases, it’s been hush-hush,” she said.

One of the earliest Tornillo cases involved a school district employee, so the school district was notified. “The other cases, we have no clue,” Vega-Barrio said.

Idalia Suarez, a 25-year-old Tornillo resident, expressed similar concerns. 

“People are kind of afraid. But also they’re mentioning that how can we not know who these people are if it’s such a small town,” she said. 

Rural areas face unique challenges

State Rep. Mary González, a Democrat whose district includes Tornillo, said COVID-19 is magnifying long-standing problems in rural areas.

State Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso County

“I think for a long time, rural communities have been abandoned. And we’ve seen that, whether it’s in local politics or statewide politics. For example, you don’t have to look very far just to see the closing of multiple rural hospitals over the last few years,” she said.

The area around Fabens, just north of Tornillo, also has seen a sharp increase in cases in the past week and now has an infection rate of 9.6 per 10,000 residents. The 79938 ZIP code to the east of Tornillo, which is a mix of rural and rapidly urbanizing areas, has an infection rate of 11.6 per 10,000 residents.

González said rural El Paso County residents are nervous and anxious, in part because of an information vacuum.

“I do think there’s a disconnect between the way the information is shared in the city of El Paso and the way that it connects to Tornillo,” she said. 

Suarez said many Tornillo residents aren’t following social distancing orders and guidelines. She recently moved out of her parents’ home when she took a job at a food pantry and didn’t want to risk exposing them if she contracted COVID-19 at work. But before she moved out, neighbors would routinely knock on her parents’ door, despite orders and guidance against such gatherings.

“We just didn’t open the door when I was there. They would tell us, why are you so scared? Nothing’s going to happen. If we get sick, well then, we’re going to get sick,” Suarez said.

Need for mobile testing, improved communication

Tornillo is unincorporated, so it doesn’t have a local government infrastructure to share information. It sits 45 miles from the County Courthouse in Downtown El Paso. Traditional television and print news sources don’t connect to many Tornillo residents. They rely on Spanish-language radio, often playing in the background, for information, according to González, Vega-Barrio and Pérez. 

The Dollar General store is one of the few retail outlets in Tornillo. (Photo by Idalia Suarez.)

A key need is for mobile testing in Tornillo, community leaders said. 

González said another key need is public health officials “recognizing that there are gaps of communication, specifically for the most vulnerable population, having a strategic and intentional plan to to make sure that our communication is streamlined.”

El Paso city spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said local public health officials have reached out to the state to arrange more testing for rural areas. “They confirmed that they are bringing testing to these rural communities,” she said.

Cruz-Acosta also said neighboring Hudspeth County is offering testing Friday in Fort Hancock, about 17 miles from Tornillo. To be tested, people must have at least one symptom of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath or fatigue. Call 512-883-2400 to schedule an appointment for testing in Fort Hancock, which will be from noon to 5 p.m. Friday at Benito Martinez Elementary, 460 Knox Ave. 

González said Tornillo residents who have trouble scheduling an appointment for the Fort Hancock testing should call her office, 915-851-6632.

Cover photo: Two people rode horses on Wednesday in Tornillo, a rural community south of El Paso that has been hard hit by COVID-19. (Photo by Idalia Suarez)

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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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