With US border work on track, rural towns fear virus spread

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FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2019, file photo, the first panels of levee border wall are seen at a construction site along the U.S.-Mexico border, in Donna, Texas. Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic are raising fears workers could spread the sickness within nearby communities. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. – Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are raising fears the coronavirus could race through temporary work camps and spread to rural communities unable to handle an outbreak.

Despite a clampdown on people’s movements in much of the country, groups of workers travel every day from camps in New Mexico to build President Donald Trump’s border wall.

Along the northern border, a Canadian company says it will start work this month on the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, another Trump-supported project that could bring thousands of workers to rural communities in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Residents, tribal leaders and state officials have warned that the influx of outsiders could make problems worse in rural areas with little or no medical infrastructure capable of dealing with a surge of infections. The border wall and pipeline are exempt from stay-at-home restrictions intended to reduce the virus's spread.

Faith Spotted Eagle, an environmental activist and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said she's reminded of her grandmother’s stories about the tribe's struggles to survive smallpox and the Spanish flu.

“It’s the 1800s again, the cavalry is coming in and they’re going to set up their fort, whether it’s justified or not,” she said.

In most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe illness and even death.

Cities have borne the brunt of the virus so far in the U.S., but rural areas are expected to be hit, too.