Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Dr. Ivan Melendez, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, and Edward Graham. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

MCALLEN, Texas – U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-McAllen) held a press conference on Monday to discuss the possibility of erecting a field hospital in Hidalgo County to alleviate the overwhelmed COVID-19 hotspot

At the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, he was joined by Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, and Edward Graham, assistant to the vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan’s Purse International Relief.

“We’re in a very critical crisis that we’re trying to work through,” said Gonzalez. “And, I continue to advocate in Washington and Austin for state and federal resources, but I’m also advocating to private organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse who’s here today.”

Gonzalez, who contacted the emergency aid group, said their medical team will be assessing the area’s situation to determine if and how they will operate their relief efforts, focusing on factors like hospital stresses, shortages, and infection rates.

“You have some unique challenges here just based off geography,” said Graham. “Where you are, the temperature outside – there’s just a lot of challenges that come with this, so it’s something we’re willing to come and look at.”

The charity has set up field hospitals all over the world in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Ebola outbreak and in Italy at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their first domestic operation was in New York City’s Central Park as they partnered with Mount Sinai Hospital to treat the city’s staggering number of coronavirus patients. It was there that the organization, headed by the late evangelical Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, was scrutinized and derided as anti-LGBT. Their practice of only hiring medical professionals that agree to their statement of faith, which includes language stating that marriage is between a biological male and biological female, drew criticism from local politicians and LGBT activist groups. When asked about this controversy, Gonzalez quickly shut down any derision. 

“I condemn that question at a time of crisis in the middle of a pandemic when people are dying,” said Gonzalez. “This is a time to put ideologies aside and come together as Americans, as one. This is what our country needs the most right now, and this is certainly what our community needs. And, this is what I’m advocating for. I’m inviting all our brothers and sisters to come down here and give us whatever help they can.”

Graham, himself the grandson of Billy Graham and son of Franklin Graham, affirmed the Christian mission of Samaritan’s Purse, but assured that any and all patients, whatever their race, sexual orientation, or creed will be served with the most utmost care. 

Still, whether the Rio Grande Valley is able to secure the relief organization’s field hospital is up in the air. Graham confirmed that the charity has been asked by other states to come and set up there, and that they will go where the need is greatest. Once the location is determined, Samaritan’s Purse will construct a 60-bed hospital with 10 beds dedicated for ICU patients in a matter of days.

Gonzalez thanked the Graham and his team for their expeditiousness, reaffirming that any aid is welcome.

“No matter what help we get from this organization or another, it’s not going to be enough, but any help we can get is a benefit for our community,” said Gonzalez. “If we get 10 beds, it’s a benefit from where we are now. If we get 50 beds, 60 – anything we can get will help us. We’re in a very complex place and time with this virus here in our community, and we’re looking for help anywhere we can find it.”

Melendez and Cortez echoed Gonzalez’s sentiment, saying that they anticipate another huge spike in COVID-19 cases after the recent Fourth of July holiday. 

“We know that July 4 was catastrophic because we saw so many people out and about,” said Melendez. “Fortunately, our judge, our congressman have the foresight to understand that in approximately 10 to 14 days, based on the natural evolution of this disease, our needs are going to be even greater than they are today. And, we’re already taxed almost beyond the ability to help.” 

Cortez says that this is why Valley leaders and physicians have written to Gov. Greg Abbott requesting more authority to combat the spread and for shelter-in-place mandates to be reinstated. He says, however, that he wishes the move hadn’t been necessitated.

“Either extreme, in my opinion, is not the right way to go,” said Cortez. “The answer is going to be somewhere in between. We have to learn how to operate and continue to operate and live our lives with this virus, and I think there’s a safe way to do it. And, that’s what we’re asking the governor – to give us the ability to locally make that decision, so we can take control of this virus. If not, we’re going to continue to have this.”

Melendez added, “At this point today, we are not seeing this abate. We’re seeing these numbers continue to increase, and we see our resources being diminished.”

In Brownsville, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. says they are also looking relief for their growing number of cases.

“We think that a field hospital would be beneficial,” said Treviño. “But, we are looking at alternative care sites in the meantime.” 

To this end, Gonzalez says he is working closely with Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) and Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville) in Congress to bring aid to the region.

“Clearly, we have a shortage of personnel,” said Gonzalez. “We have a shortage of oxygen; we have a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment]; we have a shortage of all types of resources at our hospitals. We have a shortage of space. So, we’re asking for all of the above. We’re asking the federal government, and we’re asking the state government with their resources to invest in our area and help us save lives.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows an emergency field hospital run by Samaritan’s Purse International Relief in New York City during March, 2020.

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