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South Texas leaders plead for help to stop COVID-19 from ‘overwhelming’ hospitals

EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — Citing “astronomical numbers” of coronavirus patients in South Texas, health and community officials are reaching out to Austin and other states, as well as to individual residents, to help battle what they say could soon overwhelm area hospitals.

On Monday, U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela Jr., and Henry Cuellar, both South Texas Democrats, sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking him to deploy thousands of National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley to help quell the spread of COVID-19 and to help with patient testing. They also requested that the troops set up a field hospital to treat the infected.

“In South Texas, we are rapidly reaching the point at which local resources will no longer be enough to provide hospital care for the growing COVID-19 caseload,” the letter read. “The deployment of military members with training, equipment and technology, along with deployable field hospitals, is urgently needed to address shortfalls, including testing, ICU beds, and emergency department capacity.”

Vela and Cuellar requested that Abbott ask the White House to redirect the up to 5,500 National Guard troops who are assigned to patrol the Southwest border in South Texas and to “shift those resources immediately to provide medical support.”

David Norquist, deputy secretary of defense, flew to McAllen, Texas, on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, to tour a segment of the border wall under construction and to meet with National Guard troops. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Several National Guard troops already are in the region administering coronavirus tests at local long-term nursing and assisted living facilities. And hospital administrators on Monday said that 20 to 50 nurses are being sent to South Texas to help area hospitals.

Dr. Ivan Melendez is the Hidalgo County Health Authority Physician. He spoke at a news conference on June 29, 2020, in Edinburg, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

In the past week, the number of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 has hit “astronomical numbers that we have never seen before,” Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority said during a news conference Monday. “We’re in tough times.”

“These two weeks coming up are dramatically important and I cannot emphasize how important these two weeks are,” said Melendez, referring to the usual incubation period for the virus as it spreads throughout the community.

Most of the viral spread in Hidalgo County has been from community contact, Melendez said. And with Hidalgo County now reporting hundreds of new cases per day — 402 new cases on Sunday — there is widespread concern that these cases will multiply and manifest into thousands of newly infected residents.

He was joined at the news conference by leaders from seven area hospitals in South Texas, as well as Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez and Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo Olivarez, who said that they have identified 115 clusters of the virus in Hidalgo County, which they attribute to spreading the virus within the community.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez leads a news conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, in Edinburg, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Cortez said he sent a letter to Abbott late Friday “soliciting help for our hospitals because we are running short of staffing and other types of supplies & equipment.” Nurses are expected to come from throughout Texas and other states, Cortez said. But their exact numbers and arrival date is uncertain.

In the meantime, the CEOs from the largest hospitals in the region plead with residents to take matters into their own hands by wearing facial coverings, washing their hands, social distancing and staying home whenever possible to stop the spread of this virus.

In Hidalgo County, 32 people have died, including a man in his 30 Sunday in Weslaco, Texas, the county reported. A total of 3,294 people have tested positive for the virus.

Cameron County, on the Gulf Coast, has had 55 deaths from COVID-19 and 2,183 cases.

Starr County, with a population of only 61,000, has had three deaths and 598 cases with two additional deaths pending residential information, the rural county reported on its Facebook page.

“We’ve never seen these numbers before. These numbers continue to escalate everyday,” Cortez said, adding that hospitals are “very close to reaching capacity.”

On Sunday, Hidalgo County sent out an emergency alert on cellphone texts and Twitter urging residents to stay home, wear facial coverings if it is necessary to step out, and avoid large gatherings.

Last week, Cortez implemented an overnight curfew in Hidalgo County. Willacy County on Saturday also put into effect an overnight curfew.

On Monday evening, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., issued a mandatory face covering order for all public places within the county, and inside all businesses. He also implemented an overnight curfew beginning Tuesday for everyone with hours varing depending upon age, and he closed all county parks and beaches until July 12.

The beach closures are to ensure there are no mass public gatherings this upcoming Independence Day weekend, he said.

“There are a lot more cases coming in the next couple weeks. A couple weeks ago we were doing very good we had a lot of open beds, but recently we are seeing beds in our ER units rising rapidly,” Lance Ames, CEO of South Texas Health Systems, said Monday. “It’s stretching our systems, our staffing and other resources very significantly.”

The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley was expected to administer 2,000 tests on Monday and has capacity to test 10,000 patients per week, Dr. John Krouse, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine said.

Cris Rivera, left, CEO of Rio Grande Regional Hospital, speaks at a news conference on June 29, 2020, in Edinburg, Texas, next to Lance Ames, CEO of South Texas Health Systems. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Help us help you,” said Cris Rivera, CEO of Rio Grande Regional Hospital. “As a community, I request that you do utilize universal precautions to keep everyone safe. It’s very simple: wearing a mask, hand hygiene, social distancing.”

“This is a regional issue,” said Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Health System. “We’re committed but until we have 100% compliance we will not see the benefits.”

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