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Cities In Mexico Use 'Sanitation Tunnels' Despite Warnings From Health Professionals


A growing number of Mexican cities are using so-called sanitation tunnels to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The plastic, sometimes inflatable, tunnels mist people with disinfectant. But experts say they may do more harm than good in fighting the disease. From member station KJZZ, Kendal Blust reports from Sonora, Mexico, where officials have installed sanitation tunnels at the border.

KENDAL BLUST, BYLINE: In early May, the border city of Nogales, Sonora, put out a video of its first sanitation tunnel just south of the port of entry with the United States. Officials stop drivers coming south across the border and ask them to walk a few steps into the white inflatable arch, then spin, arms outstretched, to be sprayed with a disinfectant.


BLUST: City Health Director Jesus Alberto Dicochea says it's a safe and effective way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. State and local leaders across Mexico have installed the plastic tunnels outside hospitals, health clinics and police stations. Nogales leaders spent thousands of dollars on five tunnels, including one installed outside each of its ports of entry.

DICOCHEA: (Speaking Spanish).

BLUST: Just as the United States has taken precautions to protect its citizens, Dicochea says, Nogales has to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from neighboring Arizona, where the number of confirmed cases is much higher. There has also been less testing on the Mexican side of the border. Nogales isn't the only city worried about cross-border infection. In the state of Tamaulipas, authorities installed tunnels at the border in April after a coronavirus outbreak likely spread from a migrant deported from Texas. But Mexico's health secretary, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, says the tunnels are a waste of money.


HUGO LOPEZ-GATELL: (Speaking Spanish).

BLUST: Far from being helpful or even harmless, he says the tunnels could further spread COVID-19 by causing people to cough. And the chemicals might irritate the skin, eyes and lungs of people who pass through them. Peter Raynor with the Industrial Hygiene Program at the University of Minnesota agrees.

PETER RAYNOR: I would not recommend this, no.

BLUST: He says sanitation tunnels don't fight the primary transmission route of coronavirus through respiratory droplets in the air. And he doubts the quick application of disinfectant is effective in killing off the virus on surfaces, either.

RAYNOR: And then the health effects to the people being sprayed, I think, are a concern too.

BLUST: The disinfectant Nogales is using is designed for surfaces in food preparation, not to be used on people. Different jurisdictions may be using other chemicals. So instead of investing in the tunnels, Raynor says leaders should encourage people to stick with what we know works. Wash your hands with soap and water. Wear a mask. Social distance. And if you can, stay home.

FERNANDO LEYVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

BLUST: Fernando Leyvas crosses the border daily for his job in the trucking industry. Even though he's heard sanitation tunnels aren't effective, he says being disinfected and having his temperature checked actually makes him feel safer. But Carlos Fisher, who works in the produce industry, is worried about being exposed to the chemicals.

CARLOS FISHER: If they would make me go through a tunnel, I wouldn't do it. I would just go back to the United States. And I would not cross into Mexico anymore.

BLUST: He's been able to circumvent the tunnels by taking a toll road that bypasses the city. Others cross the border early in the morning before the tunnels start operating. Cesar Lopez of Nogales, Arizona, works with a binational women's group and crosses the border frequently. He's skeptical of the sanitation arches, too, but says they won't keep him from crossing the border.

CESAR LOPEZ: I mean, I would rather not go through the tunnel. But if I have to go to Mexico and go through the tunnel, I'm going to do it.

BLUST: And during the pandemic, he says he's crossing the border as little as possible anyway.

For NPR News, I'm Kendal Blust in Sonora, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kendal Blust (KJZZ)