WESLACO, Texas – Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez says there are close to 2,000 rooms in local hospitals and more than half are occupied by COVID-type patients.

Cortez revealed the extent to which the coronavirus is swamping healthcare facilities in the Rio Grande Valley at a news conference held with Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday.

Abbott announced McAllen Convention Center will be temporarily converted into a healthcare facility that could take up to 50 acute care or 250 non-acute care COVID patients. He also said Step Down centers would be established in Pharr, Harlingen and Starr County for COVID patients leaving hospital.

“I want to thank you for the alternative care facilities. Let’s give him a big hand,” Cortez said, in praise of Abbott.

“The hospital groups and the municipalities and the county have been talking about these alternative care facilities, which are extremely needed to increase the capacity of the hospitals. We have close to 2,000 rooms in our hospitals and more than half of those rooms are occupied by COVID-type patients. 

“So having this tremendous access and not only having the access but all of the medical people – one of the biggest problems we had is the need for medical people, such as doctors, nurses and technicians and thank you so much for that.”

Public moves to expand the number of beds available for COVID patients in the Valley started three weeks when U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez invited Samaritan’s Purse to visit the region with a view to setting up a field hospital. However, the nonprofit, which carried out a similar operation in New York City, said an agreement to come to the Valley could not be reached with the governor’s office.

“While it’s been some time since our hospitals reached capacity, I am thankful that Governor Abbott is acting and allocating additional resources to transition the McAllen Convention Center to a health care facility,” Gonzalez said.

“This equipment and personnel will help our overwhelmed health systems save lives and provide support in our post-hurricane response. It is my hope that we can work together and continue to provide critical aid for the people of South Texas during this time. I will never stop being a loud voice to assure that the needs of South Texans continue to be a priority.”

Also appearing at the Abbott news conference was Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. He welcomed the decision to open Step Down facilities.

“What you mentioned about the facility in Hidalgo and Cameron that will become available for healthcare, for us that is music to our ears,” Vera told Abbott.

“The problem that we have, as we discussed a little before, earlier, is the capacity of our hospitals. By having this facilities in Harlingen and McAllen, that will help Starr County tremendously. Willacy, Hidalgo, Cameron, I can proudly say have been extremely great neighbors with Starr County. We work together as a region and we help each whenever possible. This is going to help our hospital considerably.”

In his remarks, Abbott thanked McAllen Mayor Jim Darling for making the McAllen Convention Center available as a temporary healthcare facility.

“The maximum number of patients that if could be able to handle will be 250 patients. That maximum number will be determined by the level of acuity of the particular patients and so it could change,” Abbott said.

“It is intended to be able to address the local needs that exist in the current hospitals. It will be open later this week. It comes with hospital beds, medical equipment and medical staff, in addition to just the location so this is going to be a single location that a large number of patients will be able to go to.”

As for the Step Down facilities, Abbott said these will provide additional locations for COVID patients to go to – especially patients that are in the recovery mode. 

“They are called Step Down sites. One is in Laredo, that will provide capacity for more than 100 patients. Another is in Pharr, that will provide capacity of 20 people to start, up to a total of 40. Another which will be coming here in the coming days is in Harlingen. And then we are still working on a site to be determined for a facility like this in Starr County.”

Abbott also announced additional medical staff will be coming to the Valley. He said the Department of Defense has deployed additional medical task forces to communities in the Coastal Bend and Valley to help combat COVID-19. 

“These are 85-person teams that consist of medical and support professionals who help meet medical needs in hospitals and in the communities of Corpus Christi, Victoria, Harlingen and Edinburg,” Abbott said.

“Today, an additional US Army Reserve unit has arrived in Harlingen to support two hospitals, one is Valley Baptist Medical Center and the other is Harlingen Medical Center. Additionally, tomorrow, there will be an additional US Army Reserve unit that will arrive in the Rio Grande Valley to begin assisting hospital personnel at DHR Health in Edinburg. This is on top of the more than 2,000 medical personnel that we have already allocated to this region to assist in the healthcare needs of this region.”

Abbott added: “The bottom line is this. The State of Texas will work with both our federal and local partners as well as private entities to ensure that every healthcare need of every person in the Rio Grande Valley is going to be met in response to either COVID-19, Hurricane Hanna or any other crisis situation they are dealing with.”

W. Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said the McAllen Convention Center is being converted into a federal medical station. 

“It is designed to go anywhere from 50 beds of acute care to 250 beds of non-acute care,” Kidd said.

“Our goal is to work with our hospital CEOs around here to determine what the greatest need is. We want to be very flexible. I do not want to be rigid and set up only acute care if that is not the need. Or non-acute care if that is the need. So flexibility is the answer of the day right now and our goal will be to get in here quickly and work with them to load-balance patients for the patients best interests.”

Kidd said an 85-person medical unit is coming to the Valley, courtesy of the Department of Defense. 

“I think the governor mentioned, we have over 6,100-contract doctors and nurses in the state of Texas right now, well over 2,000 of them are just down here in the Rio Grande Valley. More will be coming as needed,” Kidd said.

“We want to work in load-balance where we put nurses and doctors in places before…if those hospitals start seeing a crest we will move those doctors and nurses out and get the most effective or maximum use out of them as we can. The idea is to be able to load-balance where the need is in real time or as near real time as possible.”

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