As the case numbers and fatalities shoot upward, as refrigerator trucks crank up their coolers in makeshift morgues, as ambulances wait for hours to unload patients, and as coronavirus-stricken physicians and nurses slip out of the workforce, elected officials in the poorest region of Texas are getting desperate.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY- We’re very close to losing the situation," Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said at a news conference last week, before Hurricane Hanna hit this past weekend.
Judge Vera, who presides over a poverty-stricken county with the third lowest median household income in the state, said he likely will issue a stay-home recommendation by week’s end.
"Our backs are to the wall," he said. "We can only do so much. If the people in our community, the citizens of this community, don’t help us get a handle on this thing, we’re going to lose it."
In Hidalgo County, just south of Starr, Judge Richard Cortez issued an emergency order on Monday, calling on citizens to stay home for all but essential activities and essential jobs, and imposing a 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew. The order also "highly encouraged and recommended" that all non-essential businesses shut down any activity that can’t be provided by curbside, takeout, or drive-through.
The order came out as Hidalgo County leaders, physicians, and residents faced the tragic brunt of the COVID-19 disease process. In the first three weeks of July, the county reported 272 fatalities, nearly six times the total from March through June.
"I offer the deepest sympathies as I grieve with the friends and families who said goodbye to their loved ones today," Judge Cortez said in a news release. "If we collectively stand against this virus by taking the proper precautions, we can help save our neighbors from this horrible disease. Please continue to shelter-at-home, wear facial coverings, and limit mass gatherings."
Next door in Cameron County, officials knew what was coming after they had watched the number of active COVID-19 cases quadruple to nearly 3,000 in July. James Castillo, MD, public health authority for Cameron County, noted 32 deaths had been reported in a five-day span; the county had reported 79 total up to that point.
"Those numbers are going to be going up this week a lot," Dr. Castillo said at a news conference Monday. "The numbers you’re going to be seeing this week are weeks old. These are people who died at the end of June and throughout the month of July. There’s lots of people sick in the hospital right now."
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr. urged residents to protect themselves and their families from a virus that’s "not slowing down because it doesn’t care that our hospitals are at and beyond capacity."
Meanwhile, 208 miles to the northwest, the city of Laredo and a local nonprofit prepared a Red Roof Inn to serve as an alternate care site to the city’s hospitals. The state-funded project will provide 106 beds for non-acute patients, and 140 physicians, nurse practitioners, respiratory technicians, and paramedics to work there, the Laredo Morning Times reported Tuesday.
City Emergency Management Coordinator Ramiro Elizondo told the Times local hospitals will be ready to transfer patients to the hotel in "a week, maybe a week and a half."