Feds explore whether Latino immigrants to blame for coronavirus flare-ups
Top federal officials are privately exploring whether Latinos are to blame for regional spikes in new coronavirus cases, asking in internal communications if Mexicans could be carrying the disease across the border, fueling domestic outbreaks.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and others in the agency raised the issue repeatedly with the Department of Homeland Security and federal public health officers late last week, according to meeting notes and emails documenting the conversations obtained by USA TODAY.
“Are there any immigration patterns DHS is seeing that support the thesis that seeding could be coming from Mexicans over the border?” Azar asked, according to emails summarizing one of the meetings.
“Could we be seeing the after effects of cinco de mayo (sic)?” he asked, according to the summary.
Latino activist groups condemned the implication as the latest example of rhetoric wielded to transfer responsibility for the government’s failures onto those least able to defend themselves.
“The xenophobia that feeds that kind of communication is beyond appalling,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Over the weekend, Homeland Security and federal health officials pointed to possible explanations for spikes in Texas, Arizona and North Carolina other than immigration. Their email responses connected the rise in new COVID-19 cases to America’s rapid and loosely planned reopening, which the White House has defended despite criticism from public health experts.
“The upticks in COVID cases is likely to be linked in the general community relaxation of social distancing regulations as well as general community social distancing fatigue,” William Ferrara, executive assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, wrote to HHS on Saturday, citing the conclusions of the agency’s medical staff as well as legal cross-border traffic, which has largely stagnated in recent weeks.
Border Patrol records show that more than 40,000 migrants have been expelled on the southwest border since coronavirus-related restrictions took effect in March.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams said it’s critical not to blame groups of people for the outbreaks but to recognize that some, including Hispanics, have been disproportionately affected.
“It could be reopening, it could be job-related, it could be importation across the border,” Adams told USA TODAY in an interview, noting that the administration is analyzing more data from communities to make policy decisions. “I do think it is a reasonable question, among many to ask, if there is an element of importation.”
After publication of this story, Adams clarified in a statement that he has “not heard this theory or implication from Secretary Azar at all.”
In a statement to USA TODAY, Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, acknowledged that the agency is concerned about cross-border transmission of COVID-19 and pointed to the administration’s ban on all immigration over the border that is not deemed essential. The restrictions exclude dual citizens and documented residents.
Caputo denied Azar ever said or believes the Hispanic community is responsible for outbreaks.
“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard this week,” he said. “Secretary Azar isn’t theoretical; he works with experts to identify and address public health risks.”
After publication, Azar sent USA TODAY a statement denying that he had blamed immigrants.
“I did not say these things,” he said. “In fact, the opposite is true; I have been leading the charge to address the health disparities and impact of COVID-19, especially in the Hispanic and African American communities. To address health disparities is not to blame those impacted by health disparities.”
Health officials in Pima, a border county in Arizona that includes Tucson, told USA TODAY that they have watched their case numbers march up as stay-at-home orders relaxed. Total cases have climbed by 125% in the county since a statewide shutdown was lifted in mid-May.
“We get groups of more than 10 together, we open up businesses, we don’t wear masks and end up where we are,” said Pima County Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen. “We don’t have to speculate that this is a rise in people coming across the border.”
The emails and meeting notes obtained by USA TODAY show high-level federal officers in multiple agencies alarmed by the outbreaks and flailing to divert blame from the helter-skelter reopening strategies. The conversations behind the scenes directly contradict the administration’s repeated efforts this week to downplay the threat of a second wave of COVID-19.
Despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that large gatherings are among the activities carrying the highest risks for spreading the virus, President Donald Trump plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this weekend as he hits the campaign trail before the general election in November.
Vice President Mike Pence, leader of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, rejected news reports about a looming resurgence of infections as media scare tactics in an op-ed published Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal. “Such panic is overblown,” he wrote.
Pence urged the nation’s governors to play down spikes in their case reports in a telephone call Monday. According to audio obtained by The New York Times, he told the state leaders to attribute the newly identified cases to increases in testing capacity and to stress that “we are safely reopening the country.”
In a statement to USA TODAY, Devin O’Malley, a Pence adviser, denied there is any contradiction between the task force’s public comments and members’ private concerns. He pointed to reports of dual citizens and documented residents traveling from border towns in Mexico to receive better care in American hospitals.
“Certain members of the task force briefly raised the possibility of dual citizens crossing the border from Mexico to receive treatment in the United States,” he said, “and how this could potentially have contributed to new cases in the San Diego and El Paso areas.”
A USA TODAY analysis of case data showed the nation is experiencing regional outbreaks across the country that defy easy explanation. While the virus is flaring all along Arizona’s border with Mexico, most communities along the Texas border are seeing no such surge. Deep inside the USA, the Iowa side of its border with Minnesota is a hot spot. So are swaths of Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Amy Adams Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency has launched a multifront response to “trends starting to go in the wrong direction.”
North Carolina has more than doubled its number of confirmed coronavirus cases since the state’s stay-at-home order expired May 22, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.
“As we moved to Phase 2 and people began moving around more, we’ve seen an increase in cases,” Ellis said in an email. “Due to longstanding and pervasive structural injustices, we see a disproportionate impact on historically marginalized populations.”
She cited statewide efforts to mitigate the new cases in those areas, including better access to medical care, business relief for minorities and “intensive support at meat-processing facilities.”
Coronavirus cases have soared at meatpacking plants since Trump declared the industry an essential operation over concerns about shortages of pork, chicken and beef. Some of the nation’s highest spikes have occurred in counties with meat-processing facilities.
North Carolina’s state leadership has sparred with the Republican Party over its presidential nominating convention in August. Republicans relocated events to Florida after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would not commit to permitting all the traditional crowded gatherings.
Latinos more likely to be infected
Activists say the narrative that Latinos are somehow responsible for the recent outbreak – rather than its victims – follows a pattern of rhetoric in the Trump administration.
Garcia, at the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Latino workers in agriculture and meatpacking are disproportionately affected because the government has relied on them to work throughout the pandemic.
“This appears to be a Stephen Miller talking point,” he said, referring to the presidential adviser who has driven much of the administration’s immigration policies. “Finding a scapegoat right before the election to rile up the base. Immigrants bringing disease over the border is a trope that goes back to Hitler.”
CDC data released Monday suggests Latinos may be more much likely to be infected with coronavirus than the general population, along with Blacks and American Indians/Alaskan Natives.
Americans are more than five times as likely as Mexicans to have a confirmed case of the coronavirus, although the difference may reflect the relative availability of testing in each nation.
Last month, Politico reported that Azar downplayed concerns about public health conditions inside meatpacking plants, suggesting on a call with lawmakers that workers are more likely to catch the virus because of “their social interactions and group living situations.”
Because the emails and meeting notes provide only a snapshot of the administration’s concerns, it’s unclear what type of immigration Azar referred to late last week. In other messages, HHS officers ask explicitly about changes in migration patterns for dual citizens and documented immigrants.
Health officials noted in the emails that many of those travelers are not screened for symptoms and could carry infections in either direction.
CBP spokesman Nate Peeters did not respond directly to the concerns but said exempt migrants allowed into the country “receive the same processing, evaluation and potential [CDC] medical screening that all entrants undergo at U.S. ports of entry.”
“Every week, CBP encounters thousands of unscreened, unvetted and unauthorized migrants from countries affected by COVID-19 who have crossed U.S. borders illegally,” he said, pointing to the Border Patrol’s recent expulsions and denials of those who pose a public health threat.
Friday, William Roy, the director of response operations at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emailed immigration officials for flight and border crossing information to pass along to Pence’s office.
Ferrara provided data showing that since Trump’s moratorium on border travel in March, total traffic at ports of entry has decreased by 43%. Likewise, pedestrian and vehicle traffic has changed little on both the southern and northern borders over the past month, according to the data.
In March, Trump tied his border restrictions to “unscreened and unvetted and unauthorized” immigrants from dozens of countries.
“During a global pandemic, they threaten to create a perfect storm that would spread the infection to our border agents, migrants and to the public at large,” Trump said. “We are not going to let that happen.”
Friday, federal health officials gave Dr. Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, an analysis to explain factors contributing to the flare-ups. That analysis, intended for the vice president’s office, seems to undermine the notion that immigrants are responsible for the outbreaks.
“Increased community spread due to reopening and a relaxing of social distancing, particularly over Memorial Day weekend,” officials wrote.
They noted that Hispanics and other minorities are disproportionately affected and that a large proportion of essential workers in many meat-processing plants are minorities.
This week, the CDC deployed staff to Arizona, Texas, North Carolina and California.
The agency did not respond to questions about what they are doing in these states, but Ellis at the North Carolina health department confirmed CDC personnel are coming to help investigate the spike in cases.
Health officials attribute surges to reopening
State and local health officials in the nation’s Sunbelt region, where cases have increased dramatically, told USA TODAY they have seen evidence of a correlation between infections and reopening but not immigration patterns.
Infections have exploded in Arizona since the reopening May 15, increasing 180% in a month, an analysis of USA TODAY data shows. On Tuesday alone, Arizona officials reported an increase of 2,341 cases, double the state’s total by the end of March.
Flare-ups have plagued communities along the state’s southern border with Mexico. Santa Cruz, a rural county, has seen the fastest rise in case rates. Five out of every six residents there are Hispanic, but non-Hispanic whites account for nearly as many cases as Hispanics.
The state has been even harder hit in its northeast corner, in Apache and Navajo counties. Both have small Hispanic populations but are home to significant Native American tribal communities.
“We’ve expected with increased activity, we’d see increased transmission,” said Patrick Ptak, spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, pointing to state guidance.
Wednesday, Ducey for the first time ordered all businesses in Arizona to take specific actions such as keeping workers and customers 6 feet apart and taking workers’ temperatures to slow the spread. Such actions previously were only recommendations.
Ptak said the state is tracing the contacts of those who get sick to better understand the rise in cases.
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and the state health agency’s former director, pegged the increase to a failed reopening strategy.
He said Arizona kept its numbers low through good compliance during the shut-in period, only to widely and quickly lift business restrictions. The state preempted cities from imposing their own restrictions, before this week, when Ducey switched course to allow municipalities to mandate the wearing of masks.
“The root cause is that when we came out of the stay-at-home order, it wasn’t replaced by anything that had any kind of compliance standards,” Humble said.
Tuesday, Texas saw a record number of 3,358 cases. Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference there’s “no reason today to be alarmed” because the state has the capacity to handle the new cases. He stressed personal responsibility and scolded young people who flocked to the bars he declined to temporarily close.
The next day, Abbott conceded that municipalities could enforce mask-wearing rules in their cities, which he had refused to order.
Contributing: Mike Stucka
Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein are reporters on the USA TODAY national investigations team. Contact Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org or @brettMmurphy or Letitia at email@example.com, @LetitiaStein, by phone or Signal at 813-524-0673.