Officials in Mercedes have officially approved the use of the city’s emergency dome shelter as an alternative site for COVID-19 patients as hospitals throughout the Rio Grande Valley struggle to keep up with a crushing influx of critically ill patients.

The decision came by unanimous agreement during a noontime emergency meeting Friday at Mercedes City Hall. City Commissioner Jose Gomez attended the meeting via phone.

“The county, as well as others, but the county primarily, are looking into having alternative care sites because of the COVID virus spiking up dramatically in this city, as well as others,” Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala said at the top of the meeting. “The intensive care units, the beds, the hospitals are being maxed out.”

Fire Chief Javier Campos said county officials had already been in contact with the city and were grateful for the offer to use the building.

“We did get an email from the county asking for the floor plan so they can start working on the process already,” Campos said.

The city built the dome to primarily serve as an emergency shelter in the event of a flood.

With hurricane season continuing for several more months, the city manager said one of his concerns about allowing the building to be used for COVID-19 patients would be where to temporarily house Mercedes residents in the event of another flood.

To that end, he reached out to the local school district about alternative shelter locations.

“Chacon Middle School is available as a shelter just in case a flood happens in the next couple of months toward the end of hurricane season,” Zavala said.

But the dome has also been utilized for other purposes, including most recently as a mobile testing site operated by the Texas Military Department. Campos said nearly 900 people were tested at the dome earlier this week.

As a first responder and paramedic, Campos said he has seen first-hand how the spike in cases is affecting local hospital systems, with EMS crews having to wait hours before their patients can be admitted to overburdened hospitals.

“I’ve seen a big spike in our cases, not only in our city, but throughout the county.”

Over the past month — from June 10 through figures reported on July 9 — not only have the number of new coronavirus cases in the Valley risen at an alarming rate, but the rate of those hospitalized and admitted to intensive care units has also skyrocketed.

Positive cases have risen 771% since June 10 — from 842 to 7,334 cases.

The rate of hospitalizations has increased by nearly 1,600% — from 44 on June 10 to 741 reported to be in area hospitals as of Thursday night.

And ICU admissions are more than 37 times higher than they were in June — an increase of 3,780% — from a mere five patients in local ICUs last month to 194 as of Thursday.

The number of those killed by the virus has increased nearly tenfold as well, from 12 reported fatalities in Hidalgo County on June 10 to 123 as of Thursday.

Mercedes will provide the building to the county or a medical group — such as a hospital system or nonprofit organization — but will not provide staffing or security for the building.

Those costs and needs will be borne by whoever utilizes the dome.

“The city is not to have any cost except to absorb the utility or electric cost,” Zavala said.

Mayor Henry Hinojosa, along with the rest of the commission, shared his support for the use of the dome for COVID-19 patients.

“At least we will have something in east Hidalgo County to be in use if it continues to get out of hand,” Hinojosa said.

Commissioner Leonel Benavidez agreed, adding at the end of the meeting: “Mayor, I shared the same concern last night in the evening with our chief and Zavala to utilize whatever we can to help because of the rising cases. So, I appreciate it.”