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To protect their Texas city, doctors vaccinated the sister city across the border

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've been hearing Americans talk about their lives and work during the pandemic. Dr. Victor Trevino of the Laredo Health Authority enacted the first mask mandate in the U.S. on April 2, 2020. But for best protection, he felt he also had to look across the Rio Grande.

VICTOR TREVINO: And Laredo has always had a rich history as a border city that has always been intertwined in culture, commerce and family with its sister city of Nuevo Laredo.

SIMON: About 10,000 people cross between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, every day to work, shop, to socialize. Dr. Trevino says, during the pandemic's first year, the American side was hit hard.

TREVINO: Being that we're a 95% Hispanic community, we're disproportionately impacted. And we were disproportionately impacted because of the fact that we're medically underserved, with not enough doctors or nurses or ICU space for a community our size.

SIMON: When the vaccines rolled out, there was hope that the strain on Laredo's medical facilities would ease. But it didn't because sick people from Nuevo Laredo were coming over for care.

TREVINO: Because of this, it is very important to strive to get everybody vaccinated in the whole region. So we coined the term regional immunity.

VICTOR D TREVINO JR: Dr. Trevino thought of a unique opportunity - that if we were able to vaccinate our sister city, that we would not only reduce the amount of people landing in the hospitals, but it would also save us an incredible amount of resources that we needed here locally.

SIMON: That's Dr. Trevino's son, Victor D. Trevino Jr., an attorney who helped launch a pandemic response with his father. That unique opportunity involved getting surplus vaccine doses from around the state of Texas for residents of Nuevo Laredo.

TREVINO JR: These vaccines were slated for disposal.

SIMON: The Trevinos got support from Texas and Mexican lawmakers, from other public health officials, doctors in Nuevo Laredo and from Customs and Border Patrol. The regional immunity effort started last June. Mexicans sign up, then on a designated day, they board buses that take them to the checkpoint on an international bridge between the two cities.

TREVINO JR: We go up on the buses with a square contraption that we've created. In Spanish, it's called a chicletera. It's what you sell candy and gum from. And you see them on the borders, little kids selling - these type things. But they work very well in a closed environment inside the buses. We end up vaccinating a bus. Our average time is about 7 1/2 minutes per bus. We vaccinate the 50 to 60 people on the bus. And they go back for more people.

SIMON: Victor Trevino Jr. says the program so far has vaccinated more than 250,000 people from Nuevo Laredo. And in Laredo, Texas, it's reduced the number of hospital visits from nonlocal residents by 50%. His father, Dr. Trevino, says this work has been important, and it's been gratifying.

TREVINO: Now I know why Doctors Without Borders do what they do - because they see the need. They see that humanitarian effort is more important than anything. And that's one of the reasons I became a doctor also, to do this. But now that now we're doing this in this fashion - and people say, when are you going to stop? And I say, I have no time frame to stop it. If the need is there, we'll continue going.

SIMON: This week, Dr. Victor Trevino announced that he's leaving the city's health authority. He's going to treat patients full time again. He's missed doing that. The vaccination program will continue bus by bus over the Rio Grande.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYPE RIGHT'S "280") [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to an agency as Customs and Border Patrol. The correct name is U.S. Customs and Border Protection.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 1, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly refer to an agency as Customs and Border Patrol. The correct name is U.S. Customs and Border Protection.