Los Angeles Times

Delaying vaccine comes at a cost

Border Patrol agent’s hesitancy to get inoculated led to him being hospitaliz­ed and put on a ventilator.

- By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON — Every day, Inez Vasquez visits her husband in the hospital and searches his eyes for signs of the man she married, the father of four who invested the past 18 years of his life working for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in El Paso.

Agent Freddie Vasquez, 43, hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19. He tested positive for the coronaviru­s twice on the job, his wife says: first in March 2020 and again in February, when he was hospitaliz­ed and placed on a ventilator.

This week, he was breathing on his own again, but he has yet to speak or respond to his wife during her daily visits.

“I encouraged him to get that vaccine,” said Vasquez, 44, a registered nurse. “I am left to wonder, if he had obtained the vaccine, would he have been left like this, would it have been as severe?

“I’m still in disbelief that this is our current reality.”

More than 8,300 of the nation’s roughly 60,000 U.S Customs and Border Protection staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, with the largest numbers in Arizona (969), California (1,358) and Texas (2,858), according to the agency, which has seen increases in migrants arriving in recent weeks, crowding Border Patrol holding areas and shelters. So far, 28 agency staff members have died of COVID-19.

As of last week, more than 64,000 staffers at the Department of Homeland Security, about a quarter of the workforce, had been vaccinated, including some Border Patrol agents. An agency spokeswoma­n did not respond to a request for statistics on how many of those vaccinated were U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff.

After President Biden took office, Homeland Security set a goal of vaccinatin­g 80% of its staff by year’s end. The department’s Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW) has notified staffers that they qualified for vaccinatio­ns, registered them through an internal online system, expanded the number of Veterans Affairs vaccinatio­n clinics from eight to 163 and sponsored vaccinatio­n events.

Biden administra­tion officials have said the COVID response for federal employees, including Border Patrol agents, was slowed by the Trump administra­tion’s lack of planning. Leaders of the National Border Patrol Council, the largest union representi­ng Border Patrol agents and longtime Trump allies, have also been critical of Homeland Security’s COVID-19 vaccinatio­n effort.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas visited Texas and touted “Operation VOW.”

“There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our workforce,” Mayorkas said in a statement, noting the agency is “committed to protecting our employees by ensuring they have access to the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott disagreed during a visit to the border last month, without providing any details to support his claims.

“We have Border Patrol officers whose lives are on the line, and the Biden administra­tion will not step up and provide the vaccinatio­ns they need,” Abbott said as he spoke beside Brandon Judd, the head of the Border Patrol agents union. Judd and other union spokesmen did not return calls for comment last week.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 28,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffers, faulted the Trump administra­tion for not stocking up on vaccines for the union’s members last year, saying it “shows a lack of leadership.”

In order to be eligible for the vaccine, Reardon noted, U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff had to qualify as healthcare or front-line workers (categories 1a and 1b) — which doesn’t include all agency employees. Reardon said he recently asked Mayorkas to expand the Operation VOW vaccine drive to all employees, but he hadn’t received a response last week.

Reardon, who’s based in Maryland, received the Moderna vaccine through a local clinic and said his union has worked with state and local authoritie­s to sponsor COVID vaccine drives for members.

“If we don’t reach herd immunity, this is not going to go away,” he said of the virus. “It is a race. We’ve got to get people vaccinated before these variants get out of control.”

Border Patrol officials have said they have made efforts to limit the spread of the virus in their ranks during both the Trump and Biden administra­tions. They tested agents and required those who tested positive to quarantine.

When infections rose among agents in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in January, they canceled press ridealongs for the first time in a decade.

In recent weeks, the agency barred press tours of migrant holding areas on the border, citing the pandemic. It initially limited capacity in holding areas, where migrants were tested for the virus and quarantine­d. But as the number of migrants arriving at the border has increased, Border Patrol holding areas became dramatical­ly overcrowde­d.

The largest facility in Donna, Texas, which had a restricted pandemic capacity of 250, has housed more than 4,000 migrants at once. Holding areas in Tucson and El Paso were also overcrowde­d, according to Border Patrol records reviewed by The Times.

But as efforts have ramped up to vaccinate agents, some, such as Freddie Vasquez, remained hesitant.

From the start of the pandemic early last year, he worried about catching the virus, his wife said, but thought he could protect himself. He wore a protective mask and gloves on the job. When he came home, he shed his uniform in the garage and showered before greeting his family, she said.

Within weeks, he was diagnosed with COVID-19, his wife said, suffering mild symptoms: chills, aches and a fever. Vasquez thinks that initial bout encouraged her husband to postpone getting vaccinated even as he continued to interact with fellow agents and with migrants in the field as a K-9 handler.

In the summer, before vaccines became available, Freddie Vasquez rescued two migrants from drowning in an El Paso border canal, earning two medals of valor. In December, the husband of a cousin of Inez Vasquez died of COVID; the family attended the funeral virtually.

With the uptick in migration since Biden took office and the vaccines now available, Vasquez told her husband, “Please get that vaccine.”

“We had plenty of discussion­s about how much it varied, person to person, how some people get mild symptoms, and then there are those who end up in critical condition,” Vasquez said, but she also told her husband he was more at risk because of his job.

“You’re out there every day — as soon as you all are able to, please schedule it,” she told him.

He wasn’t persuaded, she said. While he had received an email notificati­on at work that he could receive the two-dose Moderna or PfizerBioN­Tech vaccines, he insisted, she said, on waiting for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson.

“I’ll get it, but let me wait for that one dose,” his wife recalled him telling her. “So we left it. You just never think you’re going to be affected in this way.

“You just don’t think it will happen to you.”

Raul Rodriguez, 53, a former customs officer at a border bridge in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, said some of his former co-workers have been vaccinated and others still haven’t. His brother-inlaw, a Border Patrol agent in San Diego, got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, he said, and his wife, who works for another Homeland Security agency, U.S. Citizenshi­p and Immigratio­n Services, is scheduled to get vaccinated soon.

Rodriguez said he also knows plenty of former coworkers who have had COVID-19.

“A lot of the people I’ve known there at the bridge have gotten sick and close to dying. I’m kind of glad I’m not at the bridge right now,” he said.

Freddie Vasquez collapsed at home on Valentine’s Day, unable to move his left arm and leg. His wife summoned paramedics, who rushed him to a hospital, where he tested positive for the virus. Scans showed his brain was swelling. Days later, he was placed on a ventilator.

Doctors ultimately diagnosed Vasquez with COVID-19, which they said had triggered the inflammati­on in his brain. They couldn’t predict how much brain damage he had suffered, or whether he would be able to walk and talk again, let alone return to work.

His wife and children have not developed COVID-19 symptoms.

Vasquez recently received her first Pfizer vaccine. She’s taking unpaid leave from her job, she said, to take care of her husband and children.

Freddie Vasquez’s Border Patrol dog, Meni, a Belgian Malinois-German shepherd mix, has been transferre­d to other handlers at a nearby facility in Demming, N.M., although they brought him by the Vasquez house to visit the couple’s children — at their request. The children have yet to visit their father at the hospital but have been in touch through video calls.

Last month, he was transferre­d to a long-term care facility, removed from a ventilator but remaining dependent on a tracheosto­my collar and oxygen.

“When he started to open his eyes, it was just a blank look, like he was not really there,” his wife said.

This month, she noticed him making eye contact, which lifted her spirits but also made her sad, suspecting he felt trapped inside his broken body.

“For someone who loves to talk, I can’t imagine the frustratio­n to not be able to communicat­e,” she said.

She was the shy one at their parties, letting her husband take the limelight, but now Vasquez wants to raise awareness among other Border Patrol agents that they need to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“They are on the front line, especially right now Border Patrol, because they are so busy with so many groups coming through,” she said. “Get that vaccine. I’m devastated that my husband did not get it as soon as he was able to schedule it, because I have to wonder what difference that would have made for him, and would we be in this position now?”

 ?? Inez Vasquez ?? BORDER PATROL Agent Freddie Vasquez, with his kids Isaac and Samantha, tested positive for the coronaviru­s twice while on the job, his wife says: first in March 2020 and again in February, when he was hospitaliz­ed.
Inez Vasquez BORDER PATROL Agent Freddie Vasquez, with his kids Isaac and Samantha, tested positive for the coronaviru­s twice while on the job, his wife says: first in March 2020 and again in February, when he was hospitaliz­ed.

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