Martín Figueroa hit the brakes on his forty-ton dust-coated semi truck and drew to a halt just short of the pop-up vaccination tent on the Ysleta-Zaragoza International Bridge. It was 9 a.m., and he had just crossed the border from Juárez into El Paso. A U.S. customs official had alerted him about the opportunity to get vaccinated, and when he spotted the blue tent he pulled over and clambered out of the truck. Staffers in scrubs guided him toward a table, where they asked for his name and insurance details—enough information to identify him but too little to determine his country of origin. Next, Figueroa was shuffled to a second table, where he pulled up his sleeve and winced as the needle went in. “No drinking alcohol after this,” one of the staffers quipped in Spanish. A staffer handed him a vaccine card, and Figueroa headed back to his vehicle to wait the required fifteen minutes for observation. Three more semis pulled up as he waited, dwarfing the vaccination tent as they jostled for room to park.
Figueroa, a trim man with rectangular glasses and ripped jeans, had driven across the border daily for the past three years. Every morning he’d pick up a load in Juárez, haul it across the border to the company’s docking station in El Paso, and then drive back to Mexico to repeat the process two or more times before sunset. That ride from Mexico to the U.S. is now one from a place with limited access to coronavirus vaccines to one with an overabundance. On the Mexican side of the border, just 35 percent of the population is vaccinated, says Verónica Carrión Falcón, a Juárez health official; in El Paso County, more than 78 percent of all residents over the age of twelve have received at least one dose, according to the city’s health department—well above the national average of 65 percent. While the remaining 22 percent of El Pasoans are being offered incentives such as free zoo tickets to get them to the vaccination booth, for many residents across the river in Juárez, waiting lists are still months long.
But travel across the border for any reason, including to access the vaccine, has been restricted since last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first wreaked havoc in North America and Central America. In January, when El Paso’s vaccine rollout launched, Mexican nationals in Juárez were able to schedule appointments in the U.S. online, but those who tried to cross the border exclusively for those appointments were turned back. Figueroa, an essential worker—who transports some of the $81 billion in goods that move internationally through El Paso every year—was one of the few who could pass into the U.S.
In June, when demand for the jab began to plateau in El Paso, federal regulations still prohibited the city government from sending doses—even those about to expire—the ten-minute drive across the river to Juárez. The city’s fire chief, Mario D’Agostino, whose emergency response team pivoted last year from primarily fighting fires to helping battle the virus, wanted to find a way to get the excess shots into arms before they spoiled. But he worried that if he didn’t adhere to federal guidelines, El Paso’s vaccine supply would be cut off. So he and his team developed a plan to broaden vaccine access to those who can still cross the border—among them the eight hundred to one thousand truckers who roll through the ports each day.
On June 1, staff members from the fire department went down to the Bridge of the Americas, which stretches across the Rio Grande and connects the sister cities, with signs and flyers. They flagged down truckers and channeled them toward a pop-up vaccination tent. At first, only one or two drivers trickled in; three days later, there was a line winding down the Paseo Del Norte highway. D’Agostino says communication networks within the trucking community have helped spread the message about the pop-ups. WhatsApp groups, subreddits, and worn, handheld CB radios keep drivers in touch as they navigate the subcontinent. “Once we could talk the first one into pulling over, he got on the radio and got it started,” D’Agostino said.
The pop-up was so successful that the fire department launched a second center at the Ysleta-Zaragoza bridge. Just two weeks later, D’Agostino and his crew had inoculated more than eight hundred truckers with the one-and-done Johnson & Johnson vaccine. For many, the pop-up vaccination tent offered a reprieve from months of precarity. According to Nahum Sotelo, the operations manager for Sotelo Trucking, a Mexican company with more than two hundred truckers, 15 to 20 percent of the company’s workers have come down with the virus over the course of the pandemic. After receiving his shot that day in June, Figueroa remarked on the ease of the process. “I thought the vaccination was going to take more time, but everything was easy. I was just scared of the needles,” he joked, feigning a flinch. Then the smile vanished, and his voice took on a solemn tone. “But it’s not a game. We have a lot of people that left us.”
Jesús Pérez, a driver for Sotelo Trucking, discovered pictures of the pop-ups on WhatsApp when he was stalled in customs at the Bridge of the Americas. Members of one of his group chats were encouraging one another to get the vaccine. Throughout the pandemic, Pérez had kept the mask, gloves, and disinfectant that his company provided him in his truck’s cabin. But he worried about catching the virus in the headquarters where truckers meet to drink coffee out of styrofoam cups and rest between trips. After clearing customs, he had made a beeline for the pop-up site and received the last dose of the day. “I just trust God, and he’s kept me safe,” Pérez said with a grin. “Maybe COVID’s afraid of me.”
According to Jorge Rodriguez, a captain in the fire department and the city’s emergency management coordinator, El Paso’s near-zealous vaccination program has derived much of its energy from the crisis the city experienced in October 2020. At its peak that month, El Paso saw more than 1,200 new cases a day, and 1,500 external medical personnel were brought in to bolster the health department. Hospitals erected tents to take in spillover patients.
When case numbers first started rising, the fire department stepped in, brought public health under its umbrella, and helped direct the pandemic response. D’Agostino set up a cross-functional response team comprising health, fire, and medical emergency personnel. The city scaled up its epidemiology department from seven to three hundred staffers and created a nationally lauded data website, El Paso Strong, to track case numbers and deaths. “We saw the worst-case scenario for the pandemic,” Rodriguez told me as he reviewed case numbers from last fall. “That trauma, that impact, I think, really scared us. That’s why you see such a high rate of vaccination with our elderly. That’s what drove the want for the vaccines.”
For many in El Paso, the lack of access to the vaccine in Juárez was deeply personal. When the border closed in March 2020, families found themselves split by the Rio Grande. Rodriguez’s parents are from Juárez, and his father’s family still lives in the state of Chihuahua. He doesn’t know whether his family in Mexico has been able to get vaccinated. And the border shutdown has ruptured families in more ways than one. Laura Cruz-Acosta, communications director for the city government, told me that the closed borders have delayed the burial of her maternal grandmother. “We purchased a funeral niche in Juárez,” Cruz-Acosta said. “You can’t cross because of travel. We’re waiting to bury her freely.”
Around noon on the day Martín Figueroa received his shot, D’Agostino stood on a balcony overlooking the city’s largest vaccination site at the El Paso Convention Center. Hundreds of chairs, spaced six feet apart, snaked up and down the hall. But there were more staffers than patients at the site. “We’re very, very anxious to open the border,” D’Agostino said. The chief leaned wearily on the guardrail, his watchful, sunken eyes scanning the room below. He has served in the El Paso Fire Department for a quarter of a century, but he’d never encountered a crisis quite like this one—and he wasn’t ready to let up. “We have very good numbers in our community. But if we get something [in Juárez], whether it’s drug overdoses or it’s tuberculosis, the wall doesn’t stop it. There’s too much traffic back and forth.” The border was scheduled to open on June 21, but, as it has every month since April 2020, the Department of Homeland Security extended the travel restrictions another thirty days. When the border finally does open, D’Agostino hopes to see the convention center fill up again. Until then, he will keep doing vaccine pop-ups at mall openings, in parks, and at construction sites, scouring the city for those who remain unvaccinated.
Back at the Ysleta-Zaragoza bridge, Figueroa’s fifteen-minute wait was up. He climbed back into his truck. Once in the cabin, he removed his mask and breathed deeply. For more than a year, the cabin had been Figueroa’s main defense against the virus; trucking is solitary work, and his semi had served as a kind of isolation in motion. But soon he would be able to take a seat at the rest station without fearing he’d take the virus back home to his wife and children. His next stop on the journey north was the company headquarters. “As the day goes by, we talk to each other about what’s going on,” Figueroa said. “I’ll be seeing some friends at the company. I’ll tell them what’s happening here.”