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No sign of COVID-19 community spread in Starr County

Despite two new cases of COVID-19 in the area this past week, a Starr County official says there are still no signs of community spread of the contagious disease in the county with a population of nearly 65,000.

On Monday, the county reported its first case in three weeks, and the county confirmed its 9th case Wednesday. Wednesday’s case was a woman who had been staying in a hospital outside the county for over a month for a chronic health issue who tested positive for COVID-19.

Starr County Health Authority Dr. Jose Vasquez

“It counts as a statistic for Starr County because she is a resident of the county even though she picked it up outside of the Valley,”  Jose Vasquez, the Starr County health authority and board president for the Starr County Memorial Hospital said. “We believe she may have picked up COVID while she was hospitalized.”

Prior to this week, the county had not reported a new case of COVID-19 since Sunday, April 5 when they reported their seventh case of a person infected with the novel coronavirus disease. That case occurred a week after the county’s first confirmed case.

“All of the cases have been travel related and because they were isolated, there was no community spread in the area,” Vasquez said. “We feel confident and proud of the work we have done here to take proactive measures against the virus months before we had the first cases in the state, we are very proud to be reporting just 9 cases. We went for 22 days without reporting a new one and now we have a new one but overall, we are very happy with the results we have. It shows community spread isn’t happening.

The 9 cases in Starr County represent a fraction of the 744 total cases of COVID-19 across the Valley as of Wednesday. Hidalgo and Cameron counties have 401 and 324 cases, respectively, while Willacy County has 10 cases.

According to Vasquez, all prior seven cases were released from isolation, making the two new cases this week the only active cases of COVID-19 in the county. 

“The community has listened to several warnings we have implemented and the results are showing right now,” Vasquez said.

All seven cases showed no symptoms for the last seven days, per a recommendation from the Centers for Control and Prevention, Vasquez said.

The low cases are attributed to several proactive measures Starr County has taken in the last few weeks. The county implemented a disaster declaration in mid-March that prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people. That declaration was shortly followed by a stay at home order that prohibited people from being out in public unless they were performing essential business.

The disaster declaration was extended through May 18, the county announced two weeks ago. 

“It’s part of our measures to stop the spread of this disease which is what we want,” Starr County spokeswoman Cynthia Fuentes said. “County Judge Eloy Vera and Vasquez have been proactive in making sure people are safe and we are making sure people stay safe.”

Among the measures the county enacted that Fuentes touted were the stay at home order, making people use face masks in public and closing all school districts and businesses at risk of breaking social distancing rules.

“By the time the first case was reported here in March, we had already taken steps to make sure we’d be safe,” Vasquez said. “We had multiple meetings with local leaders to strategize how to deal with this before it appeared here with the goal of having the least amount of cases here and no deaths or the lowest amount of deaths from the virus.”

Despite the extension for the disaster declaration, Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to reopen the state that goes into effect today will allow restaurants and retail stores to open to the public but at a 25 percent capacity and no longer makes the use of facial coverings mandatory.

If the number of COVID-19 cases in the state doesn’t increase, Abbott will allow businesses to open at 50 percent capacity and possibly open gyms, barbershops, bars and salons.

At a Wednesday press conference, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera raised concerns about Abbott’s orders but said the county will follow them.

“The governor trumps what I decide,” Vera said, adding that he will ask businesses to at least consider telling patrons to continue using a facial covering. “The governor feels he needs to open up for economic reasons and I understand. I just think we could’ve waited three weeks without adding too much of an additional burden to be safer. We urge people to remain at home if they don’t have to be out to not lose sight of what has gotten us to where we are at. If these plans are disregarded, we are playing Russian roulette with our community.”

Starr County is so far the only county in the Valley to not report a COVID-19 related death.

The county was also the first south of San Antonio to receive a testing center, Vasquez said, adding that it helped the county prepare itself for the virus’ arrival in the area

“We have one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the whole country here in Starr County. We are one of the poorest counties in Texas so people understood that unless we worked together toward this common enemy, there would be significant consequences,” Vasquez said. “We have been lucky to have significant amounts of testing material in our community, so that has helped us to identify cases early on and quarantine and isolate them.  Before other counties took decisions such as enforcing the use of masks, we implemented it a week before the CDC publicly suggested it. Along with an intense PR campaign encouraging people to follow CDC regulations, people realized we were right. Without all this containment, the picture was going to look grim.”

The county has implemented a resource page and hotline, available at the Starr County Memorial Hospital website, for people to receive information on the coronavirus.

“We didn’t want people out of their homes in this process and didn’t want a crowd to spread this disease so they needed a place to get advice,” Vasquez said. “Now, we are proud to say we have not had any cases over the last week and we haven’t been doing as many tests as we’ve done, that means there are not many people in the community having symptoms or feeling sick, that is an achievement.”

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