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When state Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that much of the state could loosen restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rio Grande Valley was not included due to its designation of having a high amount of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Under the expansion, restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms, exercise facilities and classes, museums, and libraries can resume to having a 75 percent occupancy rate while the areas of Victoria, Laredo, and the lower Rio Grande Valley must remain at 50 percent occupancy according to a release from the governor’s office.
Under a newly announced state metric system, an area is no longer considered a hot zone for COVID-19 when there have been seven consecutive days in which the number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients as a percentage of all hospitalized patients is 15% or less.
“The entire four-county area that makes up the Valley currently has 1,150 beds and more than 15 percent of them were occupied by COVID-19 patients,” Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said. “As of last week the total COVID-19 hospitalizations were in the low to mid 200s, or 17 percent.”
To get under the 15% benchmark, the total hospitalization of COVID-19 patients in the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy must be less than 165. Hidalgo County alone has 181 COVID-19 hospitalized patients.
“Everything can change though. We have 1,900 beds total but they’re not all staffed,” Dr. Melendez said. “So if they get more staff members and those beds become manned, that changes the percentage.”
Dr. Melendez’s comments come as the county braces itself for a possible spike in new COVID-19 cases that could arise from the Labor Day holiday earlier this month.
With the lifespan of a virus showing symptoms on an infected individual within 10 days of exposure, Melendez said a spike could be seen within the next few days.
“I personally did not see a lot of people setting a good example of social distancing during the holiday weekend,” Melendez said. “There were a lot of people out and about but it wasn’t anywhere as bad as 4th of July or Memorial Day holidays.”
Those holidays led to huge spikes in the amount of people exposed to the virus with new case counts crossing the 1,300 mark on two occasions in July and hospitals at over capacity during the same month.
“I don’t believe our trend is down or that we’re stable, but I have not seen a negative trending in cases or positive impact in the amount of surges yet,” Melendez added.
This fall, Melendez warned, is full of other milestones that could lead to a spike in new cases such as the reopening of schools and the start of the fall athletic season and the traditional holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year.
“There’s going to be a lot of consequences from those parties and events that will affect the elderly, “Melendez said.
The virus can only reproduce while it’s in a host meaning that it will reproduce and spread faster when it’s in a large crowd of people, Melendez explained.
“When students go back to sports, the numbers will increase, there’s no question about it,” Melendez said. “The virus doesn’t care if you’re in a gathering like protests, church, schools, games, all the virus cares is that you’re in a large group meaning it has a lot of beaches to swim in.”
Melendez issued an order last July that prevented the opening of schools until after Sunday, Sept. 27. Many school districts are planning to resume in person learning weeks after that time and are already setting up to start the fall athletic season by Monday.
The decision to resume with fall athletics is one that was made in conjunction with individual school board members, district superintendents, and with guidance from Melendez. Melendez advised all school districts to not hold an athletic season, he said.
“If the schools are too dangerous for in person education then it’s so inconsistent to say ‘you’re too sick to go to history or math but not sick enough to be in football,’” Melendez said. “My recommendation was to wait but ultimately it’s up to the school boards to decide what to do in this situation.”
Melendez noted that the situation regarding COVID-19 cases in the county is different compared to when Melendez issued his order last July.
“When I issued the order to halt schools, it was based on how we had no more rooms in the hospitals,” he explained. “That’s not the situation anymore. I no longer can say the infrastructure in our community cannot handle more cases.”
Despite the warning, Melendez admitted to feeling optimistic about the Valley handling the novel coronavirus.
“We’re not seeing a peak like we saw on 4th of July and I believe people, though it could get better, are paying much more attention to the situation now,” Melendez said, adding that there are now better treatment measures for COVID-19 patients.
“It’s easy to believe COVID-19 is over when you see the numbers and the loosening of restrictions that make you think you can go out and do the same things you did before April. People should be aware that by no means is this signaling and end of the virus,” Melendez said. “We still have over 200 people in the hospital with COVID. It’s our number one concern.”