The abrupt decline in cases has brought relief to exhausted hospital workers and some sense of normalcy to a battered nation. During the weekend, the capital’s massive Azteca Stadium opened to fans for the first time in 14 months. Thousands turned out for a pair of quarterfinal matches in the Liga MX soccer league.
“We’re returning to life,” Alvaro Jesús Rosas, 35, a car painter and die-hard fan of the Mexico City team Cruz Azul, said as he headed into the stadium.
Scientists and government officials say the pandemic seems to be abating — at least temporarily — because of increasing levels of immunity on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. As much as half the Mexican population has developed antibodies because the coronavirus circulated so widely over the past year. In addition, U.S. vaccinations appear to be blocking the southward spread of the virus.
Scientists warn that Mexico is nowhere near reaching “herd immunity,” and that variants could still wreak havoc. Officials are calling on people here to continue to wear masks and socially distance. Still, for a country that has suffered at least 330,000 deaths from covid-19, according to official estimates, the recent waning offers hope.
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The 17-week decline in new cases is “very encouraging,” Hugo López-Gatell, the government’s coronavirus czar, told The Washington Post. He said he couldn’t rule out a third wave of infections. But if both the United States and Mexico reach high levels of immunity, he said, “that would make it unlikely a local outbreak would cause a change in the national trend.”
The main reason for the decline in cases appears to be that many Mexicans have been exposed to the coronavirus, López-Gatell said. A nationwide government study found 25 percent of participants tested positive for antibodies between August and November 2020. Then came the Christmas-season spike in infections — the most intense of the pandemic. Now, the Health Ministry estimates at least 50 percent of Mexicans have immunity, mostly because they have been infected, López-Gatell said.
There may be another, intriguing factor. Malaquías López-Cervantes, a professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, dubbed it the “Biden wall.” With nearly half the U.S. population vaccinated with at least one shot, he said, fewer infections are being carried to Mexico.
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“The transfer of contagion through the border was very high,” López-Cervantes said.
Indeed, the government’s Social Security Institute found last year that coronavirus antibodies were most prevalent in the northwest, from Baja California to Chihuahua states — reflecting the intensity of infections in the border region, authorities said.
Earlier in the pandemic, López-Gatell said, “the intensity of transmission in the United States determined a lot [of] what happened in Mexico.” Now, the high rate of U.S. vaccination “has a positive effect on Mexico.”
Mexico has benefited not only from immunized Americans at its border. With vaccines in this country still relatively scarce — about 12 percent of the population has received at least one shot — hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have also traveled to the United States to get immunizations.
Roberto Bernal Gómez, health secretary of the state of Coahuila, just south of Texas, noted that many residents have taken advantage of family ties to arrange vaccinations in the United States. “Most people living along the border have access, because they have children studying [in the United States], or they work there,” he told reporters.
Although pandemic restrictions bar Mexicans from nonessential travel across the border, many residents can cross either because they are dual citizens, or have jobs, school or medical appointments on the other side.
Meanwhile, a stampede of vaccine-seekers from Mexico’s interior is so intense that airfare to cities in Texas has surged. Travel agencies are doing a brisk business in vaccine tourism packages that include airfare, hotel, transfers and shots.
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Mexico ranks fourth in the world in confirmed coronavirus deaths, after the United States, Brazil and India. The recent turnaround is all the more remarkable coming as South America is besieged by a third wave of the coronavirus. Mexico may be benefiting from warmer spring weather, while winter is approaching in the Southern Hemisphere. Another difference appears to be that variants have not spread widely in Mexico. “To some extent, it’s a mystery” why they haven’t become dominant, López-Gatell said.
Scientists caution against complacency; they note that the coronavirus has been unpredictable around the world. “We have seen over and over again that new waves might appear after a period of apparent calm,” said Jaime Sepúlveda, a former senior Mexican health official who now runs the Institute for Global Health Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco.
Even with half of Mexicans possibly immune to the virus, he said, another half are still susceptible. “And that’s a lot of people.”
His institute recently issued a report blasting Mexican authorities for their handling of the pandemic, saying they did too little testing, provided insufficient financial support for workers and did not coordinate an effective national response. The government has blamed the intensity of Mexico’s outbreak on high levels of comorbidities such as diabetes and heart disease, and social factors such as housing density and poverty.
The state of Quintana Roo, home to the beach resorts of Cancún and Tulum, shows the dangers still lurking. It’s the only one of Mexico’s 32 states in which coronavirus cases have been steadily rising. Authorities blame spring breakers and Easter week tourists who crowded bars and discos. The governor, Carlos Joaquín, warned last week of an “imminent risk” of a new shutdown.
Even in places where cases have plummeted, many remain skeptical that the crisis is ending. “You can’t help but notice what’s happening in India and Brazil,” said Marco Silva, 50, a businessman attending a match at Azteca Stadium on Saturday. “We are paying attention.”
Nonetheless, Mexico City is more vibrant than it has been in months. Although the city’s shutdowns hadn’t been as severe as in some other countries, sidewalk cafes and parks are suddenly bustling. Banks and restaurants are allowed to stay open longer, stores can fill to 40 percent of capacity, and Azteca Stadium — the country’s largest — was permitted to sell tickets for one-quarter of its 87,000 seats for the weekend matches.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Rosas, the car painter. He continues to mourn the death of an aunt and two uncles during the pandemic. But returning to a soccer game represented a big step toward normality.
“We are ready,” he said.
Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.
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