Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations began earlier this month in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by Rey R. Jauregui)
By Marisol Chavez/Borderzine

In Ciudad Juárez, being a U.S. citizen or resident may be a saving grace when it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The delay in the pace of vaccination in Ciudad Juárez, and the stark difference of progress with El Paso, led some living in Juárez to search for alternatives to get their most vulnerable loved ones vaccinated.

Ana Laura Sánchez, a 22-year-old UTEP student, searched for opportunities to vaccinate her 84-year-old grandmother Catalina Sánchez, a U.S. resident living in Juárez who has a type of dementia.

“Anywhere that she had the opportunity to get vaccinated, whether that had been El Paso or Juárez, we were going to take it,” Ana Laura Sánchez said. “The first opportunity was the United States, so we registered her immediately. In Mexico the process is much slower.”

Vaccination first began in El Paso on Dec. 15. As of May 11, 680,000 doses had been administered, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Almost two-thirds of the El Paso population who are age 16 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, the state said.

In Ciudad Juárez, vaccination of health-care workers began on Jan. 13. Although the state government of Chihuahua had planned for vaccination of people 60 or older to begin in February and end in April, the first vaccines for older adults were administered the week of April 12. A total of 114,000 doses were provided, approximately 8% of Juarez’s total population.

Staff from El Paso County Emergency Services District 2 fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For Catalina Sánchez, vaccination is not only a form of protection against a deadly virus, but an opportunity to live again. Lockdown affected her general wellbeing, and she was frequently confused as to why she couldn’t go outside or to the casino. However, the main effect was seen in the progression of her dementia.

“She was already forgetting her children’s names, and that she had grandchildren, because she would not see them,” Ana Laura Sánchez said. “The vaccine also helps her in her process with her memory.”

For other older adults, the wait has been frustrating. Josefina Grajeda, a 64-year-old Mexican citizen living in Juárez, has been waiting to get vaccinated for many months. Her husband, who she lived with, passed away six years ago due to cancer, so she has been living alone at home to protect herself from the virus for more than a year.

Since Grajeda is 64, her family was afraid that her age would move her down the waiting list in Juárez, since the first vaccine registration efforts of the federal government were aimed at people 65 and older.

Her grandchild, José Giner, a biochemistry student at UTEP, was looking for different options before it was announced that the vaccine campaign set to begin in Juárez April 12 included individuals 60 and older. The options, however, were not very broad, since the border between the U.S. and Mexico has been restricted to essential travel since March 2020.

Although some Mexican citizens can cross the border if they have a scheduled medical appointment, getting a vaccine is not considered essential, according to Customs and Border Protection.

“I was ready to bring her to El Paso, to get a letter from a doctor or even make a fake one to bring her and vaccinate her here,” Giner said.

Juarez’s delayed start of its COVID-19 vaccination program has already affected the rest of the state government’s vaccination plan. People 50 and older were expected to be at least partially vaccinated during the first weeks of April. Since only those 60 and older are eligible, the state is now two months behind schedule.

Lorena Romero, a Mexican citizen and accounting student at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, has been living with her family in Juárez since the pandemic began. Many of her friends, she says, are either UTEP students or U.S. citizens who have already been vaccinated.

“Mexico is not doing a good job getting people vaccinated, the inefficiency of the government is evident,” Romero said.

According to Romero, her frustration is only growing because she is seeing everything from the perspective of the border.

“It makes me really angry with the government and its institutions. Why are we not vaccinated?” Romero said. “Seeing it so close and not being able to get the vaccine is very frustrating.”

A vial containing doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Some states, including Texas, do not require proof of residency or citizenship to administer the vaccine. Since traveling through air into the United States is not restricted and only requires for individuals to test negative to COVID-19 no more than three days before arriving, according to the CDC, some Mexican citizens have traveled in order to get vaccinated in the U.S.

“People very close to me have done it and I condone it,” Romero said. “We’re not really talking about if you belong to one place or the other, but about human life. It shouldn’t make a difference if you’re Mexican or American. If you have the financial advantage to travel abroad, you should definitely do it.”

Cover photo: Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations began earlier this month in Ciudad Juárez. (Rey R. Jauregui/La Verdad)

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.