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Hidalgo County to receive additional medical, funeral staff

Hidalgo County will be receiving 80 additional medical personnel to assist local hospitals as they reach capacity due to patients being hospitalized with complications from the COVID-19 virus.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez made the announcement Wednesday on the same day the county reported an additional 651 positive cases of the virus, bringing the county total to 9,244 as of press time.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez addresses the media as he issues a Disaster Declaration for Hidalgo County Monday, March 16, 2020. Progress Times photo by Jose De Leon III

The county death toll rose by 35 that day, its deadliest day yet, as the amount of people hospitalized rose to 867 with 221 of those patients being treated in intensive care units.

Those numbers are expected to go up later this week as the county will begin to see the results of the surge testing done at the H-E-B Park in Edinburg. Out of more than 19,000 tests conducted there since testing began last week, Cortez said the county is expecting at least 15 percent of those tests to come back positive.

“We didn’t want to overwhelm our healthcare providers at the start of the pandemic,” Cortez said. “We were hoping to never get to this point but unfortunately, almost every hospital is at capacity or near it, it’s very concerning to us.”

The 80 medical staff members are part of a U.S. Army Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force that state Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday. The task force will provide medical support needed in Rio Grande Valley hospitals.

Additionally, the Texas Division of Emergency Management is coordinating with local officials to identify alternate sites, such as area hotels, and contract medical staff to care for and house patients that are recovering from COVID-19. 

This will ensure additional hospital capacity in both Cameron and Hidalgo counties, according to the governor.

“As the State of Texas mitigates the spread of COVID-19, we are continuing to work closely with our local and federal partners to identify outbreaks and provide our communities with the resources they need to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “I am grateful to our federal partners at the Department of Defense for sending these teams to the Valley and working within the community to protect public health and combat this virus. These teams, coupled with our newly established partnership with local hotels, will aid in our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure adequate hospital capacity in the Valley.” 

Additionally, the county will receive more funeral directors to help the county manage the surge of deaths.

Besides the medical personnel, the county is receiving two large refrigerated trailers that will be located in Weslaco and Mission, respectively, that can each contain 50 bodies.

This would be in addition to the trailers the county already has stored outside the county forensic office, Cortez said.

“One of the funeral home owners I’ve spoken with said their funeral home has capacity for seven bodies, it’s currently holding 18,” Cortez said. “Unfortunately that is a problem we’re trying to solve.”

The county healthcare system has been so overburdened that many hospitals are reporting several issues, Cortez said.

“Everybody is looking for PPE, oxygen is in low supply, beds, filters, all of these supplies are in great need,” Cortez said. “The biggest problem we have is staffing. All these hospitals operate 24/7 with three shifts per day and nurses and doctors and other medical personnel working overtime. When a lot of the hospitals are telling you they are short on staff, that’s a problem.”

Other problems faced by the local healthcare system is that of patient transportation where ambulances with patients must wait outside hospitals for hours until a bed is made available for them.

Cortez also announced that Samaritan’s Purse-a North Carolina based evangelical Christian humanitarian organization that visited the Valley Monday to determine if they could bring a field hospital in the area to assist the healthcare system-declined to provide aid to the county.

“Unfortunately, we’ve learned they’ve turned us down feeling we could get help from elsewhere and they needed to help an area that could not receive help,” Cortez said.

The move was criticized by local officials such as U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who organized the meeting with the organization. In a statement he expressed disappointment at the decision by Samaritan’s Purse.

“Here are the facts: Our hospitals are at capacity, people in South Texas are dying and more needs to be done,” Gonzalez said. “Despite the recent arrival of some medical staff, we still lack critical medical personnel, ventilators, heart monitors, oxygen supply and other necessary resources. Without them, Texans will die.”

Following the press conference, Gov. Abbott announced $41 million in federal emergency funding for local governments would be distributed in separate rounds with the first one-totaling $7 million, would be distributed this week.

14 cities in the Rio Grande Valley will receive a total of $860,291.87 this week. This includes the cities of Mission, Alton, Palmview, Pharr, San Juan and Rio Grande City.

These funds come from the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding (CESF) Program authorized by the federal Emergency Appropriations for Coronavirus Health Response and Agency Operations Act, according to a news release from Abbott’s office.

Funds awarded under the CESF Program will be used by local units of governments for first responder overtime and hazard pay; equipment and supplies supporting teleworking technologies, social distancing and personal protective gear; county jail costs associated with the medical needs of inmates as well as reimbursement for holding inmates awaiting transfer to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“This funding is critical to helping local governments protect Texans and combat the spread of the virus in our communities,” Abbott stated. “The State of Texas will continue to work with the federal government to help meet the needs of our cities and counties as they respond to COVID-19.” 

Cortez also shared COVID-19 statistics from the county that said that more than half of the positive cases have been from women and a majority of the people testing positive have age ranges from their 20s to their 40s.

“They are the prevalent age, likely because they are more active and around more people and thus have a higher probability of being infected,” Cortez said, adding that the cities with the highest amount of cases are Mission, Edinburg and McAllen.

“The cities with the highest populations appear to be the ones heavily affected,” Cortez said.

Cortez also addressed criticisms from the public on the county not ordering a lockdown by reminding the public that currently, only the governor has that authority after an executive order Abbott signed that went into effect last May to reopen the state.

Rumors of an impending statewide lockdown had reached Cortez, which he said he didn’t know about but supported the idea of a lockdown that lasts a few weeks. 

“When the governor gives local leaders the power to make those decisions, I want to believe we already know how to keep ourselves safe,” Cortez said, “Using facial coverings, sanitizing our areas, not gathering in large groups, all things we should be familiar with. I can assure you we can coexist with these precautions. However, we have a crisis. That is not acceptable.”


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