Mexico Creates Vaccine Oasis in Bid to Reopen U.S. Border

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The state of Baja California is Mexico’s Covid vaccination beachhead, an island of safety better protected than California itself, just a few hundred tantalizing yards away.

As President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rushes to revive his battered economy, Mexico is prioritizing scant vaccines for border states, trying to inoculate all adults there. In Baja California, home to Tijuana, 79% of residents 18 or over have been vaccinated with at least one shot, Mexico says. In California, that rate is only 62%, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

Efforts to vaccinate all adults along the U.S.-Mexico border would set up the countries for a “complete reopening of the border,” Lopez Obrador said at a press briefing Thursday. He said last week that the government will focus on 39 municipalities.

Mexico is hoping that success at its busiest border crossing with the U.S. will persuade its northern neighbor to admit nonessential travelers, even if only one city at a time. The decision about where to send doses isn’t easy. The nation has fully vaccinated only 16% of its population versus 47% in the U.S., and the threat of more transmissible variants is growing across the region.

“If the objective is to reactivate the economy, it makes sense,” said Fernando Alarid-Escudero, a researcher at Mexico’s CIDE University who has worked on Covid-19 models. “There’s always a trade-off. It could mean we’ll vaccinate less in the south of the country, which is also touristic, and where there can be new outbreaks.”

Mexico Creates Vaccine Oasis in Bid to Reopen U.S. Border

Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodriguez said at Thursday’s briefing in Mexico City that she expects the border inoculation program will be done within a month. Lopez Obrador said that on a recent visit to Baja California, San Diego officials liked the idea of reopening the part of the border they share, but that the decision depends on the U.S. federal government.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday that the Biden administration isn’t ready to lift restrictions on international travel.

“It has to be based on conditions,” Buttigieg said in an interview with Bloomberg Television, noting the U.S. has working groups with the U.K., the European Union, Canada and Mexico to determine when it will be appropriate.

AMLO’s border gamble is taking place as Mexico enters a crucial phase. Health officials are trying to outrace the virus with vaccinations, but they are in short supply. Chiapas, for example, Mexico’s poorest state, also has the lowest vaccination rate: 18% for a single dose.

The inoculation campaign began slowly, but now averages over 400,000 daily doses compared with 1 million in the U.S., a country with over twice its population. Mexico is well situated for success: Coverage rates for some vaccines like measles is higher than the world average. In May, Mexico saw a steep drop in Covid deaths as it sped vaccinations, and hundreds of thousands flew to the U.S. to get shots.

Mexico Creates Vaccine Oasis in Bid to Reopen U.S. Border

But given Mexico’s far lower vaccine supply, it won’t have a chance to prove that it can beat U.S. rates, at least not for a while. Mexico had a stockpile of about 60 million doses as of July 4, while manufacturers pledged 700 million for the U.S. by the end of the month. Mexico also faces logistical problems of getting shots to remote areas, many of which historically don’t accept immunization, according to Alarid-Escudero.

Shortages even threaten the border campaign itself: Pfizer Inc. said it will reduce shipments to Mexico for three weeks. That led AMLO, as the president is known, to say he would delay inoculating the next big border city, Juarez, for at least 15 days, although he later reconsidered and now plans to start there on July 12. The 67-year-old leader is also sending some of the highest-quality vaccines like mRNA shots to the frontier, saying it’s preferred by the U.S.

Read More: Pfizer Delays to Impact Mexico Border Vaccinations: AMLO

Meanwhile, states like Baja’s neighbor, Baja California Sur, are seeing a summer hospitalization surge. Nationally, new Mexico cases reached their highest since February on each of the past three days. On Friday, Mexico reported 9,319 new cases, the second-biggest rise since February, even as deaths have remained relatively stable so far.

Baja California shows the fragility of Lopez Obrador’s strategy.

The state used most of a special shipment by the U.S. government of over 1 million Johnson & Johnson single-dose shots to cover its adult population, which it did in under 10 days. But after the government used up most of that allocation, Sonora, the next state to get vaccinated, focused only on a few border cities rather than the whole state.

Mexico Creates Vaccine Oasis in Bid to Reopen U.S. Border

So how did Baja California, also home to Ensenada’s wine country, get so many people vaccinated so quickly? For one, it replicated American methods not used in other parts of Mexico, such as drive-in jabs and converting malls, stadiums and museums into vaccination centers.

It also applied uniquely Baja methods: In one video, the state health minister stands on a metal folding chair, directing foot traffic at a vaccination center. And the governor created a campaign warning residents that if they don’t get shots quickly they’ll lose them to another state.

“Let’s show everyone that we’re the strong arm of Mexico, that we don’t crack from a simple jab,” Governor Jaime Bonilla tweeted, using the hashtag of his campaign, #QueNoSeLaLlevan -- vaccinate so they don’t take them from you.

But now that Baja California has shown its strength, the question is whether there will be enough shots for other arms along the border and beyond.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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