Officials plea with public to stop spreading COVID-19

EDINBURG — With what increasingly appears to be an impending coronavirus crisis looming in South Texas, Hidalgo County brought together representatives from many of the largest health institutions in the Rio Grande Valley here Monday to outline the status of the pandemic in the area.

The panel included high ranking administrators from South Texas Health Systems, Rio Grande Regional Hospital, Mission Regional Medical Center, Valley Baptist Health System, the UTRGV School of Medicine, South Texas Behavioral Health Center and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

“We’re in this thing together, and we’re going to solve this situation by working together, so it’s very important that we continue this dialogue so we can understand the needs that we have,” county Judge Richard F. Cortez said.

As of Monday evening, Hidalgo County reported 257 people hospitalized with complications from the virus, 18 of whom were in intensive care units.

Although the officials did outline many of the challenges their hospitals are facing, their main message was a simple appeal to the public: Please stop giving each other COVID-19.

“Individually and personally, this is up to us to solve,” Robert Martinez, chief physician executive at DHR Health, said. “The hospital’s not going to solve it, the judge is not going to solve it, I’m not going to solve it. Really the power is in our hands to be able to take care of it and fix it and make it go away.”

Specifically, the pundits urged the public to wear masks, wash their hands and stay away from large crowds of people.

“It’s very simple. Wearing a mask and hygiene, social distancing. I know that you’ve been hearing this over and over and over, but it’s something that if you’re able to do that, it will help tremendously the situation that we’re in, in combating COVID-19,” Cris Rivera, CEO of Rio Grande Regional Hospital, said.

There was a sense of urgency to the administrators’ appeal Monday.

Lance Ames, CEO of South Texas Health Systems, described the rapid influx of new cases over the past month as stretching staff and resources significantly.

After an appeal from Cortez, Gov. Greg Abbott announced over the weeked that resources would be sent to the Valley to alleviate some of those problems, and Cortez said that at least two of the hospital groups in the county will be receiving support from other parts of the state.

“The top need that we see right now is staffing across all hospitals, and the request that the county has put in, that the hospitals have each individually put in for additional staffing I think is going to help all of us a lot,” Ames said. “We don’t have a definitive date when those nurses are going to arrive, but our understanding is that we should be getting at least 20-plus to 50 nurses to help our hospitals within the next couple of days, so that is going to be a welcome sight for all of us.”

U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela have also petitioned the governor for support in the Valley, asking Abbott on Monday to withdraw the current presidential authorization designating up to 5,500 National Guard troops for border protection and shift those resources immediately to provide medical support and expand hospital capacity.

Cortez addressed that plea at the news conference, saying any support in the fight against the pandemic was welcome.

Gonzalez, Vela and other congresspeople also asked the governor to grant counties and municipalities more authority in instituting and enforcing pandemic measures, including stay-at-home orders, echoing in some ways an appeal sent by four Hidalgo County mayors last week.

“Municipalities and their local law enforcement agencies must be allowed to listen to their health care experts and institute whatever measures are needed to bring the coronavirus under control,” the congresspeople said. “Governor Abbott took important steps to mitigate the virus’ impact, but it’s not enough. The status quo is unacceptable and counties must be allowed to decide for themselves what is best for their citizens. ”

In lieu of something like that happening, it appears like the initiative in fighting the pandemic will remain with the public at large, as Monday’s panel emphasized repeatedly.

“We can’t ignore this, we really can’t. If we continue the way we are, these cases are going to rise, we’re going to continue to overwhelm our scarce resources and we’re going to have serious illness and death,” UTRGV School of Medicine Dean John Krouse said. “So I want to make it clear to everyone, the responsibility to get this under control rests with each and every one of us. It’s an individual responsibility, and we have within our power the ability to do that. We know how and we need to act in that way at this point.”

Judging by several of the health officials’ comments, they’re racing the clock to drive home that point. The Fourth of July is Saturday, and many of them appealed to the public to celebrate it safely.

“The reality is this: we have our challenges in Cameron County with South Padre Island with the Fourth of July coming up,” Valley Baptist CEO Manny Vela said. “We have our challenges across the region with our penchant for pachangas, right, and backyard barbecues and those kinds of things. There is no time to waste to enact and implement the best practices that have been outlined and shared with our general public thousands of times by now.”

Cameron County announced Monday afternoon that county parks and beach accesses would be closed Tuesday evening through at least July 12.