COOK COUNTY, Ill. — They are arriving by the busload — migrants from the southern border whose journey began even farther away. The steady stream of people, many of whom had not seen a doctor in months or even years, began in August. As the numbers grew, so did the cost and the need for more healthcare providers in Cook County.

At Cook County Health’s new arrivals clinic, some were eager to share their story with WGN’s Medical Watch team like Jeferson, a young father whose children – all six of them — survived the three month trek from Venezuela to Chicago. The youngest born along the way in the jungle.

For others, it’s been a journey too painful to talk about.

Katherine and her family arrived in Chicago at the end of August. They, too, walked from Venezuela in search of a better life for their 6-year-old son, Christian.

Jaime Martinez was 12-years-old when he arrived in the United States from Mexico. Now the registered nurse manages the clinic devoted to migrants.

“I can just see myself in their faces when I first came to this country,” Martinez said. “We are currently averaging about 100 patients a day. …  It’s very rewarding to be able to help this population in need.”

Here, compassion is priceless, but the care comes at a cost.  So far, the county has spent more than $30 million treating 15,000 new arrivals. That breaks down to about $2.2 million dollars a month – a number expected to grow to $3.75 million in the months ahead. 

The chief medical officer for Cook County Health said she is the daughter of a migrant. Dr Claudia Fegan’s mother arrived here from Germany in 1939 at the age of 14.

“This is not a zero-sum game. It’s not that we are going to not provide care for other patients to provide care for the migrants,” she said. “We have to flex up and increase our capacity to meet the needs. … Cook County is doing what Cook County has done for 200 years, meet the needs of people who require care regardless of their origin regardless of their ability to pay. We take pride in that. … And we would think that everyone who is watching would feel the same way. Because at some point or another a relative of theirs came here in need and there was someone there to meet that need.”

The needs at the clinic range from screening for contagious and infectious diseases to providing immunizations and making sure the children — who make up 30 percent of the patient load — are school ready.

“It’s basically a very healthy population, because you don’t survive a journey like that without being fairly hearty to start with,” Fegan said.

Looking at the budget, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says there’s wiggle room, for now.

“Our health and hospital system has been seeing 500 new arrivals a week at our clinic. And with the rate of acceleration buses we think it may go up to as much as 850 people a week,” she said. ”This is a challenging moment. We will continue to provide care to whoever comes to our door.”

Some of the care provided to new arrival patients is reimbursable. Cook County Health can apply for and receive funding from federal and state resources.

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