County officials call for accountability as COVID-19 cases rise

With 679 new COVID-19 cases and nine deaths related to the disease reported on Thursday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and other officials urged the public to be responsible to prevent another surge similar to the one seen during the summer.

“The reality we have been warning you about for the last several weeks is here, our new case numbers are going up and they could not be at a worse time,” Cortez said in a Thursday virtual press conference.

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 press conference came after the county reported the new cases and deaths, bringing the total amount of known positive cases in the county to 39,366 with 2,022 souls being lost from complications related to the disease.

167 people remain in area hospitals to be treated with complications related to the disease with 68 of them placed in intensive care units. The numbers from the last two days are the highest amounts reported in a single day since late August.

“If we let our guard down, more of us are going to get sick and more of us are going to die,” Cortez warned. “For the first two weeks of this month, the number of new positive cases were in the range of 200 and below. Beginning this week, we saw those numbers jump to 426 on Monday, 681 on Tuesday, and 679 yesterday. This is roughly the same time period experts say it takse for the coronavirus to incubate.”

Cortez attributed the rise in cases to Halloween and Election Night gatherings after seeing several social media posts showing people holding parties for those nights. Many in the videos seen were not wearing any type of facial covering, Cortez said.

“Worse, the nation has passed the 250,000 mark for deaths and the county has also passed the 2,000 mark,” Cortez said. “That’s 2,000 of our family, friends and neighbors who have lost their lives to this terrible virus. And yet we continue to see evidence that people here are acting like this virus no longer affects us.”

At the press conference, Hidalgo Health Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eddie Olivarez said that out of the new cases, 517 were from a backlog of cases whose results just came in.

“All of them are confirmed COVID cases, with 162 of them that were within 14 days of that infectious period but these are real cases that are affecting the community,” Olivarez said. “We’ve had nearly 40,000 cases in the county, we are doing the best we can with the infrastructure we have.”

For weeks county officials have warned of a possible surge of new cases in late November due to holiday gatherings, students returning to school and participating in contact sports and Winter Texans coming to the Valley.
The state is changing the way cases are counted, Olivarez said, adding that the state is now counting positive antigen test results as a positive case of COVID-19. This will change the way cases are counted in the Valley as all 16 county school districts will receive antigen test kits to test students and staff.

As of Thursday, the county has had a total of 327 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and staff countywide, Olivarez said.

“And they have not had full activity at their schools, that’s going to be a challenge when they reopen,” Olivarez said.

Despite the numbers, county Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez urged the public to not panic.

“Is this a reason for concern? Absolutely. Is this a reason for alarm? No,” Melendez said. “We are in a place where we do not want to be, The good news is, we are significantly better than where we were a few months ago, but are in a place with the potential to go back to where we were before. All we can do is give this information to the community so the work can be done. It’s up to the community, and the individual person, to improve this.”

Cortez also stressed the need for accountability and added that despite 90% of county COVID deaths coming from the elderly, a majority of the new cases are coming from people in their 20s.

“They’re going out when they don’t need to be and spreading the virus to their older family members,” Cortez said. “Every day, people are pointing out that crowds are routinely gathering within our cities and are demanding we impose new restrictions to stop that behavior. No amount of government restrictions will save you from yourselves. This must involve people changing their behavior.”

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