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RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Starr County is in the national spotlight due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Recent news coverage includes stories by The Associated Press and The New York Times, along with MSNBC and ABC World News Tonight.

There have been more than 2,110 COVID-19 cases in Starr County and nearly 70 deaths that are suspected of being linked to the virus, local officials told the national news outlets.

“We need the help. Our house is burning and we are no less American than people in other parts of the country,” Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal told The Associated Press. 

ABC World News Tonight featured a clip of Villarreal saying this. 

The New York Times story, by reporter Edgar Sandoval, is titled: “Like a horror movie, a small border hospital battles the coronavirus.”

The story points out that the 45-bed Starr County Memorial Hospital does not have an ICU and, pre-COVID, usually had only one doctor on duty for each shift. 

However, once the coronavirus began surging through the Rio Grand Valley, it had to greatly increase the number of medical personnel. Still, it has had to transfer patients that local doctors are unable to help. 

“Out of 37 patients, that they have traceried by air in helicopter, only one made it out of a ventilator and was discharged alive,” said MSNBC anchor Brian Williams in the lead up to an interview with Dr. Jose Vasquez, president of the board for Starr County Memorial in Texas. 

Vasquez is also health director for Starr County.

“The situation over the last few weeks has been very dire in Starr County, Texas. We are a small community on the southern border with Mexico with about 65,000 people,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez pointed out that whenever Starr County Memorial Hospital has to manage difficult patients, it normally asks hospitals in nearby counties for help. 

“Now, since the pandemic has hit us very hard that has not been possible,” Vasquez said. “We have been transferring patients in helicopters on a daily basis, out of our county, to remote places, sometimes out of the state, causing tremendous pain and suffering to patients and families as well.”

MSNBC’s Williams asked Vasquez if Starr County Memorial Hospitals was still having to employ its ethics committee to decide which patients it would care for and which would be “sent home to die.”

Vasquez responded that the situation has eased somewhat thanks to the help of the Veterans Administration.

“Thank God, over the last week and a half we have got much needed help from the Veterans Administration. They have been interested in our patients over that period of time and they have been fantastic for us. They have been engaged in our community,” Vasquez said.

Dr. Cruz Bernal, who graduated from medical school three years ago, said that when he started at Starr County Memorial Hospital he never thought he would be facing the pace of a big-city facility.

“Before the pandemic, I was signing three to four death certificates a year,” Bernal told The New York Times. “These days I have been signing at least six a week. And that’s just me.”

The Associated Press story was written by reporter Paul J. Weber with assistance from video journalist John L. Mone.

Weber wrote that Martha Torres, a nurse at Starr County Memorial Hospital, knows about searching in vain for help. 

“She has spent entire shifts calling other ICUs in Texas to accept helicopter transfers out of her 29-bed unit. Some patients are sent as far away as Oklahoma City, and few survive after the long flight — leaving families with the burden of getting the bodies back home,” Weber wrote.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows medical staff at Starr County Memorial Hospital moving a patient to a helicopter to be transported to a larger hospital in San Antonio. (Photo: Christopher Lee for The New York Times)


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