Starr County Health Authority Dr. Jose Vasquez spent his Saturday morning greeting a team of healthcare professionals sent by the state to assist the county in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 15 registered nurses who arrived at Starr County Memorial Hospital are part of a team of 34 medical staff members deployed by the Texas Department of State Health Services that will also include therapists, technicians and a nurse practitioner that will soon be arriving in the county. Vasquez said they will assist the county for 21 days.
“This is significant help we are getting in Starr County for 21 days to continue fighting this disease that lives in our community,” Vasquez said. “In the next few hours they will all come here to help us man our COVID units to manage a bigger volume of patients in our community. This will be tremendous help for us.”
The deployment comes a day after Vasquez held a virtual news conference where he described the dire state of the pandemic in the county.
The hospital in Starr County was at capacity and as a result, two patients had to be airlifted to hospitals in Dallas and San Antonio, Vasquez said Friday.
“There is no way to transfer patients critically with COVID anywhere in the Valley, “Vasquez said. “All the hospitals are at full capacity,there are many cases in emergency rooms and often intubated or with ventilator support. So we have reached the critical situation we have been fearing for a long time. We are becoming basically New York. We are about to enter the 4th of July weekend. It could get worse.”
On Friday, the county reported 40 new cases of COVID 19 and three deaths.
However, Vasquez said there were several deaths that were being underreported in the county due to the delay in an autopsy and death certificate confirming a COVID-19 related fatality. The lack of confirmation was hurting the county’s chance of getting more resources to combat the virus, Vasquez said.
“Resources are given by the number of fatalities. If we do not have enough fatalities or patients in intensive care, the state will not send help,” Vasquez explained. “We need help in a desperate situation. Our hospital does not have enough manpower to keep it running with the number of patients we have. We have only one hospital and one emergency room doctor who then then goes to McAllen in the evenings. We are running short on manpower. We need the community to understand this is a serious situation.”
By Saturday evening, the county officially reported 73 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total amount of known cases in the county to 936. Of those cases, 755 were active and 178 have recovered. 15 deaths remain pending.
After the Friday press conference, Vasquez said the Texas Department of State Health Services reached out to the county to send the help they were requesting. According to Vasquez, the county will extend the stay of the deployed staff for an additional 21 days should the county need it.
“It will depend on the number of cases growing in our community,” Vasquez explained. “At this point all this help we are getting today is welcome but we don’t know if we will be needing more. I hope we don’t but we need to be very diligent to the situation. This is a rapidly growing situation.”
Vasquez emphasized the sudden increase of cases in the county by pointing out that over a month ago, Starr County was recognized as one of the counties in Texas with the lowest number of cases in the entire state.
“All of a sudden after the reopening of the state and the halt of local ordinances we had to enforce stay at home orders, the number of cases have increased by 700 percent in two weeks after another  new cases today,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez added that healthcare services in the entire Valley are overwhelmed to the point that no Valley hospital can take in new patients.
Starr and Hidalgo Counties sent out alerts warning residents that all hospitals in the counties have reached capacity. The South Texas Health System ER facility in Weslaco announced Saturday on social media they erected a tent outside the facility to house more patients,
“This is not a sustainable situation,” Vasquez said. “We have to do everything that is possible to decrease the speed of the disease, we need to flatten the curve again.”
Unless the rate of new diseases slows down, Vasquez warned that healthcare professionals may have to make a difficult decision in rationing resources.
“That terrible decision that health professionals will have to make on who gets a necessary resource and who doesn’t will be based on the possibility of a higher rate of survival,” Vasquez said. “We do not want to take those decisions ever, however, we are reaching the point where that may be necessary.”