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.”
Anyone 16 or older can now book COVID-19 vaccine appointments in L.A., ahead of California’s planned statewide expansion.
More than 8,300 of the nation’s roughly 60,000 U.S Customs and Border Protection staff have tested positive for COVID-19, 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 have died of COVID-19.
As of last week, more than 64,000 staff 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 the end of 2021. The department’s Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW) has notified staff that they qualified for vaccines, registered them through an internal online system, expanded 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 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 staff, faulted the Trump administration for not stocking up on vaccines for his 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 that 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 ride-alongs 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. They 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. Other 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 Vasquez, remained hesitant.
From the start of the pandemic early last year, Vasquez 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, his wife said.
Within weeks, he was diagnosed with COVID-19, his wife said, suffering mild symptoms: chills, aches and a fever. Inez Vasquez thinks that initial bout encouraged him to postpone getting vaccinated even as he continued to interact with fellow agents and with migrants in the field as a K-9 handler.
Last summer, before vaccines became available, 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-19, and the family attended the funeral virtually.
With the uptick in migration since Biden took office and the vaccines now available, his wife told him, “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,” Inez Vasquez said, but she 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 Pfizer 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 recalls 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-in-law, 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, USCIS, is scheduled to get vaccinated through work soon.
Rodriguez said he also knows plenty of former co-workers 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.
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.
Inez Vasquez recently received her first Pfizer vaccine. She’s taking unpaid leave from her job, she says, to take care of her husband and children.
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 Vasquez’s house to visit his 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, Vasquez 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.
Earlier 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?”