HARLINGEN, Texas – On his Capitol website, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn says he has spoken directly to President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex M. Azar “about their coronavirus response plan.”

During a Q&A with reporters in Harlingen on Tuesday, The Rio Grande Guardian thought it would ask Sen. Cornyn what he had learned. What, indeed, was the White House’s coronavirus response plan.

Cornyn responded: “It is multifaceted plan and most of what the federal government does is provide financial resources, money and expertise and support to local governments that need to surge their capacity to deal with hotspots, like we have had in the Rio Grande Valley. 

“But I think some people expect there to be a single plan that covers all 330 million Americans. But we are a big, diverse country. Power is distributed to the governors and to local officials and I think that makes us a lot more nimble, a lot more responsive because we are not all the same. One size does not fit all. 

“So, I know there are a lot of people that want to second guess and want to criticize. I think there will be plenty of time for all that later. Right now we have a pandemic we need to deal with and as a number of the speakers here pointed out, we need to save lives. We need to get people back safely to work and to school and we need to learn to live with this virus until a vaccine is found. 

“But even then, with the seasonal flu, for example, vaccines may be only 60 percent or so effective. And so this is an adjustment for all of us but as we heard from some of the hospital administrators here, what we all need to do is to learn to follow the best practices. I think Manny Vela was talking about… we know if you wash your hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask when you can’t, and stay home when you are sick. It is pretty easy to remember. If I can remember, you can remember.”

Manny Vela is CEO of Valley Baptist Health System.

Cornyn was in the Valley to learn about the region’s response to COVID-19. He held a roundtable discussion with hospital administrators, UT-Rio Grande Valley leaders, and three of the Valley’s four county judges. 

After the roundtable discussion, Cornyn held a news conference and took five questions from reporters. One of the questions was about when it would be safe to reopen schools. Cornyn responded:

“Like I mentioned a moment ago, I don’t think those decisions need to be made in Washington, D.C. We ought to be supporting local school districts. But, you have great leaders here who can talk to parents, talk to the healthcare providers, figure out what sort of accommodations need to be made. It sounds to me like those discussions are ongoing. But, I know this is a particular point. Sort of an inflection point of anxiety because this is a whole new chapter in dealing with this pandemic. But, we will get through this. Our children need to learn. They need to be safe first. But they can do both. But that is a decision that needs to be made at the local level by parents, healthcare providers and school district officials.”

Cornyn was also asked why an emergency COVID health facility in McAllen had very few patients. Cornyn responded:

“As I understand it – I will be corrected by the experts here – the big concern with the spike in cases was the possibility that we would overrun the hospital facilities, particularly the ICU beds and the number of ventilators and the like. And so, while we worked to bend that curve, there was a possibility that there would need to be additional surge facilities built, is what those facilities were for. The fact that they are not widely needed is actually a good news story. Right, Dr. Martinez? But, they were there if they were needed.”

Dr. Robert Martinez is chief medical officer at DHR Health.

Sen. Cornyn asked if he had gotten the answer right about the emergency health facilities. Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., responded: “I think the senator hit the nail on the head.”

Cornyn added: “Same thing happened, you may recall, with Governor Cuomo in New York. They sent a hospital ship up there to provide additional bed facilities. They built temporary health and medical facilities but they actually did not need them, even in the midst of probably one of the worst outbreaks in the country.”

Cornyn was also asked a question about the Rio Grande Valley’s digital divide. He responded:

“We have been talking about the digital divide for quite a long time and unfortunately this has revealed how far we have to go. I have talked to a number of folks who are standing up here about this. There are a number of reasons that I will go into in just a second. This is not just a convenience any more. When our children have to learn online or else they won’t learn at all. Dr. Perez mentioned tele-health. It has really been one of the best parts of this pandemic – the realization that we can get to more people to provide them access to healthcare using tele-health but you cannot do that without broadband.”

Dr. Nolan Perez, MD, is a UT System regent who lives in Harlingen.

Continuing his take on the Valley’s digital divide, Cornyn said:

“Congress has appropriated literally billions of dollars to try to solve this problem but frankly, during the pandemic, some of it has been on things like hotspots and laptop computers. Not every parent is as well prepared to have their children learn at home. So, I have confidence that Dr. Cavazos and the folks here in the school district are working with the healthcare providers to implement the protective measures that are needed to ultimately transition back to in-person learning. But, in the meantime, you are right, access to broadband is absolutely essential.”

Dr. Art Cavazos is superintendent of Harlingen CISD.

Cornyn continued: 

“We have appropriated billions of dollars for the federal communications commission but as I understand it the biggest problem is really the last mile. You can have these AT&Ts, you can have all the large internet providers provide the internet but if they do not have the wire into individual home, whether it be in the colonies or elsewhere, then you are just not going to be able to deliver it. So, you have identified a huge problem. We are doing everything we can to try to figure it out and in particular provide resources here at the local level so, in this emergency children won’t fail to have an opportunity to learn in this pandemic.”

Cornyn was also asked about FEMA and Census 2020. He responded:

“We have heard about the formula by which assistance is provided and they are shared programs, that usually requires some shared payment by the local government. But not all local governments can do that in order to qualify for the federal reimbursement. So, I will take that back with me.”

With regard to the census, the senator said: 

“I believe that every person ought to be counted. And the fact that Judge Treviño said, we are so far behind, should be a cause for concern for everyone. There are two main purposes for the census. One is to determine how congressional seats, lines, should be drawn because they are based on roughly equal population. The other is to get financial support from the federal government so I think everybody needs to be counted. But, I expect like so many of these other issues, there is going to be litigation and it will ultimately be decided in the courts.”

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