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Representatives in Starr County and a local task force made up of over 170 RGV physicians have signed letters urging state Gov. Greg Abbott to either return emergency management authority to local jurisdictions, or issue a statewide stay-at-home order.
On Friday, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera published a letter he and the mayors of Rio Grande, Roma Escobares and La Grulla signed that urged Gov. Abbott to return emergency management authority back to local governments.
“We understand the importance of opening Texas businesses and the impact that this has on the economy, however during this unprecedented time, we need to safeguard our residents and encourage safety procedures and guidelines to ensure the well-being of everyone,” the letter stated.
After Starr County was recognized for being one of the counties with the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in the state, the county has seen a sudden rise in cases. On Saturday, the county reported 25 new cases, bringing the total to 1,057 with 756 of those cases marked as active.
“Starr County has seen a surge of COVID-19 positive cases and deaths and we are very concerned for our residents, the letter continued. “…As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause much distress in our communities, we humbly ask for the ability to exercise local country of community ordinances as needed to keep our residents safe.”
This past spring, Starr and Hidalgo and other counties issued orders to shut down the county only for essential business and enforced wearing facial coverings, a curfew and the closure of businesses marked non-essential.
Since the state reopened last May, the state and the entire Valley has seen a rise in new COVID-19 cases, causing the public to request county judges to issue another lockdown.
Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez explained during a Thursday press conference that even if the county wanted to bring back the shelter-in-place orders that effectively mitigated the spread of the virus last spring, local officials are powerless to do so.
This is due to Gov. Abbott’s executive orders to reopen the state last May that superseded all local orders to keep counties shut down.
“We don’t have that authority anymore, so even if we were to make a decision to shut down the county, we cannot enforce it until the governor gives us authority again,” Melendez said Thursday. “The only thing we can do right now is look out for our individual self and stay home and be safe.”
Melendez is part of the Rio Grande Valley COVID-19 Physicians Task Force, which is made up of over 170 Valley doctors. On Friday, the task force issued a letter urging the governor to reinstate the shelter-in-place orders and restrict travel to essential personnel only.
“When the initial shelter-in-place order was present, we were able to sustain positive cases in the single digits,” the letter stated. “Once orders to shelter in place were lifted, our community did not demonstrate the basic social distancing needed to maintain minimal increases in positive cases.”
Since the orders were lifted, the percent of positive tests have increased from 2.5 to 10 percent and the number of daily new cases has risen to more than 250 and the amount daily deaths has increased to more than 15, the letter stated.
The amount of hospitalized patients has increased from eight to 741 with 194 of those patients being treated in intensive care units and 135 of those patients on ventilators.
“Our 12 hospitals were on diversion today and people were being resuscitated on ambulance stretchers outside the hospitals and in hallways,” the letter said, noting that the Fourth of July holiday will result in new cases based on how packed beaches and parks were at the time.
Melendez previously discussed the lack of personal responsibility the public is engaging in during the Thursday press conference where he urged citizens to act as if the lockdown were still in effect. He described the situation as “dire” and compared it to his experience working in HIV wards nearly four decades ago and performing surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq as a medic in the armed forces.
“In my 36 years in the field, that same anxiety I felt in those situations is one I feel again when I walk through the COVID wards of our hospitals and see warehouses of human beings on stretchers and ventilators one after the other,” Melendez said.