An effort to test as many as 5,000 people per day in the Rio Grande Valley began Wednesday, July 8, 2020, at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, where health officials and members of the military assisted in the effort. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

EDINBURG — By 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, 2,000 people had arrived at Bert Ogden Arena here to be tested for COVID-19 as part of a massive effort by the federal government, the state and local entities.

By 4 p.m. another 3,000 had arrived and the site was closed earlier than expected because of the overwhelming response, having tested 5,000 in a single day.

At this time next week, the site is intended to collect samples from 35,000 people, about 4% of the population of Hidalgo County.

It’s a monumental effort, to say the least, and one of three such “surge” testing sites implemented at pandemic hotspots by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

After registering for the free testing online and receiving a voucher, people who wanted to get tested Wednesday were staged at Bert Ogden Arena before being ushered down the road to H-E-B Park, weaving their way between traffic cones in a long, ambling line before receiving a self-administered test, taking a sample and depositing it on site.

According to Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, the process was taking between two and three hours Wednesday, due largely to the sheer volume of samples being collected.

Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres was at H-E-B- Park at 11 a.m. with about 50 other officers who were helping funnel thousands of cars through 10 lanes of testing.

“It’s pretty packed,” he said. “I understand that we are maxed out already. I believe they were only going to take 5,000 a day and I can tell you that the H-E-B Park is packed.”

COVID-19 tests are prepared for administration at H-E-B Park in Edinburg as mass testing efforts begin with the help of the federal government Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Despite the volume of cars, Torres says the operation was running well.

“I’m very impressed with the operation,” he said. “We tested the operation yesterday and it worked out great. We got all the kinks out and this morning; it’s going like butter.”

There were 150 Edinburg city employees on hand Wednesday, including 20 firefighters who were helping collect samples.

“I understand there’s a few nurses that didn’t want to show up, so now the firefighters are supporting that particular part of the operation,” Torres said.

Molina says teamwork like that has been a cornerstone of the testing push.

“It’s a total team effort for us to be able to pull this off. We’re not going to be able to do it by ourselves,” Molina said, adding that the state is responsible for administering tests and the effort is being federally funded. “It’s going to be a big effort. That’s why we have all those people coordinating with us.”

The city, county and DPS are handling the logistics of shepherding the long lines of cars through the parking lots of the entertainment venues.

Despite the teamwork on display Wednesday, the mayor said the program wasn’t a surefire thing before it was approved last week. Briefly, he says, it looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all before finally being confirmed by officials last Thursday.

One hiccup in the setup was making the signup process bilingual. Molina says originally the forms were only going to be in English, but were fortunately changed to both English and Spanish.

Not reaching Spanish-speaking residents, Molina says, has been a failure in the fight against COVID-19.

A member of the military changes into medical gear to protect from the potential spread of COVID-19 while assisting in the administering of tests at H-E-B Park in Edinburg on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Mass testing efforts began that day in an effort to test as many as 5,000 people per day in a region with rising cases and deaths. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

“You have maybe 40% of the population, they only understand Spanish. A lot of these messages you see come out are English, predominantly,” he said

Requiring an email address for testing in the federal program also drew concern. That requirement is still in place.

“That’s so they can get their test results,” Molina said. “In three to five days they’re going to get a response, either positive or negative … which is why that email is so critical. If they don’t have an email, they’re not going to be able to find out what their test results are.”

While people registering to get tested do have to provide an email address, Molina said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be theirs. It can be the email address of a friend or family member, someone who will alert the person when their results come in.

He said receiving those results quickly is incredibly important, especially for alerting asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

“It’s good to know whether you have it or not so you don’t pass it on to those people with asthma, the elderly, those people that already have some medical conditions,” he said. “That’s really what we’re looking at, is we’re trying to get as many people tested as we can so that we put less people in danger.”

Molina said he doubts the virus has peaked in the Valley and it’s spiked much sooner than local officials thought it would. Although he says there aren’t any plans yet to extend the federal testing locally, he could see a push to bring it back to the area, perhaps through him and other mayors writing letters requesting it.

“I would love to do it again, especially in flu season,” he said. “The rise that we’re seeing right now, I was expecting to see these numbers during flu season. I didn’t expect it to do this, this quickly.”

Testing is free and open to the public, and will be conducted at H-E-B Park and Bert Ogden Arena through July 14, beginning at 8 a.m. daily.

Those who wished to be tested must bring their printed voucher and ID to the Bert Ogden Arena at the designated appointment time to be pre-screened, and will then be directed to the H-E-B Park for administration of the test.

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