EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to fix the number of coronavirus cases worldwide.
MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — The deadly coronavirus has cost the federal government over $1 billion already, and immigration officials are using extreme caution as they screen incoming travelers and migrants crossing the Southwest border, a South Texas lawmaker said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee said during a news conference Wednesday, that these costs so far include over $700 million in coronavirus research, which is being conducted National Institute of Health.
He said officials with the Department of Homeland Security are in constant talks with his subcommittee to ensure enough money is available to provide preventative measures “to make sure the men and women doing their jobs are protected.”
Officially named COVID-19, the virus has infected at least 75,000 people worldwide and is blamed for at least 2,228 deaths. In the United States, there are 29 active cases, including one patient who is being treated at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, said Cuellar, whose district includes a portion of the city. So far, there have been no U.S. deaths from COVID-19.
Cuellar says a reduction in flights from China, as well as travel restrictions on those returning from certain countries, has helped to keep the virus from spreading en masse to the United States.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “the U.S. government has taken unprecedented steps” to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes a Feb. 2 White House proclamation restricting entry to any foreign nationals who have been in China within 14 days. And calling for stepped-up screening measures at U.S. ports of entry.
“This has not impacted the ability for Customs and Border Protection to execute or sustain their Homeland Security mission. CBP continues to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and there is an office inside of Homeland that is being coordinated to make sure we have a whole government approach to this novel coronavirus,” Cuellar said.
His committee could fund a supplemental spending bill, if there is a need, he said.
Initial testing on a vaccine is expected to begin in April. Creating a vaccine “will take millions and millions and millions of dollars,” and up to 18 months, he said.
Cuellar said that since Jan. 1, there have been 312 apprehensions of Chinese migrants on the Southwest border, including 12 in Laredo and 191 in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. None have tested positive for the virus, he said. But agents continue to try to identify and migrants who might exhibit signs of the virus during every apprehension.
“They have certain steps they take to make sure they protect themselves,” said Cuellar, who is privy to daily briefings with health officials on the coronavirus. Cuellar said next week he also will meet with the Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Dr. Courtney Phillips in his Washington, D.C., office over this issue.
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