More space. More manpower. More relief. More diligence.

These were the pleas that leaders of some of the Rio Grande Valley’s largest hospital systems made during a COVID-19 healthcare forum on Wednesday morning, continuing a chorus of concerns from local officials who are growing more alarmed at the climbing rate of cases and hospitalizations in the region.

The event, which was hosted by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, came a day after cases and deaths jumped by 650 and 11, respectively, in the Valley — two distressing records since the first case was reported in March.

It was also a sharp increase from the average of about 20 cases per day seen earlier in the month of June.

“We have seen an increase in the past week and a half that is just unprecedented,” said Lance Ames, CEO of South Texas Health Systems in Edinburg and the Edinburg Children’s Hospital.

The hospitalization rate of COVID-19 patients at STHS has more than doubled since the surge in late March, according to Ames. Other local hospitals are experiencing a similar surge in patients.

Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen is at about 80% capacity for COVID-19 patients, according to CEO Cris Rivera. At DHR, Dr. Carlos Cardenas said that hospitalization rates at its COVID-19 units have increased since around Memorial Day by about 1,300%.

“We all need capacity and all of us are feeling the stain that’s reflected on the faces of our frontline workers, because they need relief,” Cardenas, the DHR Health board chair, said.

As Hidalgo County’s total number of COVID-19 cases was expected to exceed 4,000 as of Wednesday afternoon, Ames noted that the need for more staff has eclipsed concerns of whether there’s enough personal protective equipment.

“We have a pretty good supply of PPE right now… our biggest complication is probably staffing,” Ames said. “… We do have a few beds that are open, but they’re mostly open because we need more staff.”

Medical workers from outside the Valley gather for staging Wednesday in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

At the time of the forum, he said about 30 nurses from across the state had arrived in Edinburg and were being screened and tested at the time, in preparation to join the local healthcare muscle. This came days after Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez sent an emergency request to the state for more nurses

“They will be an additional resource to our hospital to be able to increase our capacity, and that’s really the biggest need right now, just having the manpower to be able to take care of our community the way we need to,” Ames said.

More help arrived Wednesday afternoon with the arrival of two ambulance strike teams deployed by the state to support emergency medical service providers that have been overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The 10 ambulances hailed from North Texas, places like Flower Mound and Plano and Stonewall County. They rolled into the parking lot of the Pharr Event Center a little after 5 p.m. Wednesday, many of them completing a journey of over 500 miles.

“The state commissioned the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force (TX EMTF) that will support other EMS providers during disasters or when times are crucial,” Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña wrote in a release. “We appreciate their quick response to our community.”

According to the statement, the two teams are made up of five ambulances each, either advanced life support or basic life support with common communications and a leader in a separate command vehicle.

“Having the strike team on hand will be a big help to reduce wait times for county residents in an emergency,” Saldaña wrote. “This will help relieve current ambulances that have been tied up at the hospitals answering other calls regarding COVID-19.”

Local hospitals are taking other steps to prepare for their COVID-19 units reaching capacity. Speaking at the forum Wednesday, Ames said STHS has already begun to prepare the neighboring Edinburg Children’s Hospital to house patients with the coronavirus.

Cardenas said DHR is also in the process of onboarding several temporary out-of-state nurses.

Since the pandemic hit the region in the last weeks of March, he said DHR has prepared as much as it could to stay ahead of the coronavirus by creating a separate emergency room facility for people experiencing respiratory issues and opening two COVID-19 units.

The effort to recuperate from the disease, Cardenas said, will take a village.

“We stand ready with all the measures we have put in place and we are doing our part, and I think it is appropriate to ask the public to do their part,” he said. “Follow the rules we have been talking about… I sound like a broken record when I tell you to wash your hands, wear a face covering, maintain social distancing, limit yourself to activities that are essential and don’t congregate, don’t come together.”

He mentioned that he knows that the strong familial culture of the Valley makes social distancing tough for the community, but to effectively mitigate the pandemic, hard sacrifices have to be made.

“For the Valley (social distancing) is difficult because we are a panchanga culture,” Cardenas said. “It’s very difficult and I understand that, but we need to do these things to help us control what is rapidly unfolding in front of us.”

Dr. John Krouse, the dean of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine, expressed the same concern and warned the public that though the state has partially reopened a few businesses, it is not the time to let their guard down.

Medical workers from 10 upstate hospitals sent by the state arrive at the Pharr Events Center on Wednesday in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“People began to congregate in groups, in large groups without these kinds of protections at beaches, night clubs and other areas,” Krouse said of the community’s response after state and local social distancing mandates were loosened. “And I think getting people back together in those kinds of close circumstances without the appropriate protection really set the stage for the virus to begin to grow again and grow rapidly as it is.”

Krouse also mentioned that the university’s need for personnel at its four testing sites is also high, being that their COVID-19 call center is receiving about 12,000 daily calls in addition to administering about 1,000 tests — about a 10-fold increase from a month ago.

He said it takes about five days for someone who has contracted the coronavirus to develop a positive test, so it is recommended that people wait until then to get tested.

State Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr. also took part in the forum, mentioning that as local healthcare personnel continue to be on the frontlines of this 21st century plague, they are defending the community’s economic emergency.

Hinojosa mentioned that Hidalgo County has received $151 million in COVID-19 relief funds so far, but the state is now $3 billion over the budget passed last session. The deficit is deep because oil and gas, and sales tax, the two main sources of revenue for the state, have plunged since the pandemic arrived.

He emphasized that though the state’s representatives prepare to address several unprecedented challenges, public education institutions will be receiving all of their promised funding.

Lucio commended the teamwork effort of local leaders in confronting the pandemic.

“Our message is clear: the Valley needs help to keep the families in our region safe and healthy,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct hospital locations.