Starr County funeral sparked rash of COVID-19 cases

A funeral held for a beloved community member in La Grulla sparked a rash of new cases in Starr County this week. County officials are urging caution just as the number of new cases across the U.S. is steadily climbing.

On Friday, the county’s health authority, Dr. Antonio Falcon, shared a statement on social media where he announced he’s consulting with state health officials. Under their guidance, the county is “evaluating and monitoring a potential outbreak in the eastern part of the county.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera confirmed that attendance at the funeral is suspected of creating the recent rise in local cases.

“Some of them were not wearing masks or face coverings. I guess some of the family members started to test positive and they asked everyone to test,” Vera said.

So far, up to 16 cases are suspected to be tied to the attendance at the funeral held within the last week. The number is expected to grow.

As a result, funeral homes received a memo on Friday from the county asking them to reinforce guidelines on gatherings. Judge Vera said the county is allowing “the immediate family to be on the ground, and then if additional people wanted to go, they had to stay in their vehicles.”

Cases in the county were stagnant up until the funeral, Vera said. The Texas Department of State Health Services, or DSHS, recorded 18 new cases in Starr County on Tuesday and 19 new cases Oct. 24. It pales in contrast with the highest number of cases reported to DSHS on July 21 when the county registered 145 new cases.

Across the state the daily case totals are growing, though at a slower pace than other states entering a second wave of the virus.

On Thursday, about 118,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the country. Texas contributed about 8,600 cases to that number.

Lone Star state residents are still seeing a lower case count per capita compared to northern states like Montana or the Dakotas. The worst state as of Saturday is North Dakota where out of every 100,000 people, about 171 have the virus in the last seven days, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Texas, 62,000 of the nearly 66,000 beds are currently in use, according to DSHS. El Paso County in East Texas is still a hot spot. The judges of both of these regions stay in touch.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego reached out to Vera when Starr County began placing strict measures to reduce the rate of infection early into the pandemic.

“ He called and he wanted to know,” Vera said. “He liked the orders that we had; he wanted to know how we did it, and so forth. And after that, we try to help each other.”

Vera said he believes his county was able to act quickly because of the cooperation and support from its cities and school districts. El Paso County’s judge and the city’s mayor did not see “eye to eye,” Vera said.

Now, the county is under a curfew following Samaniego’s orders which conflict with the governor’s orders on re-opening the economy. A state court recently allowed the shutdown to remain in effect.

Vera is following the twists and turns of the legal discourse.

“Of course, El Paso has a lot more resources than we do to fight this thing in court. But, we’ll try to follow the governor’s orders as much as we can, and hopefully keep our numbers down,” Vera said.

On Sunday, Vera renewed an emergency shelter-in-place order that he said was simply a recommendation for the public. The order is in effect until Dec. 7.