BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., held a press conference on Friday with the heads of four local hospitals to speak about the “dire” situation surrounding the county’s exponential uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

Manny Vela, president and CEO of Valley Baptist Health System; Art Garza, CEO of Valley Regional Medical Center; Matt Wolthoff, CEO of Harlingen Medical Center; and Leslie Bingham, senior vice president and hospital CEO of Valley Baptist Health System, all joined Cameron County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo to discuss their concerns. 

Like Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, the leaders says their biggest fear is not having enough health care workers to treat the influx of COVID-19 patients. 

“Our hospitals expand and contract based on the demand that we are experiencing,” said Garza.  “And, at the moment, our hospitals are expanding. And, I’m very concerned that if our rates continue the way they are, then we will find ourselves in situations like we saw on the news – cities like New York and other hotspots. And, unfortunately – I hate to say this, and this is simply my opinion – I don’t think we’re far from that.”

To bring things into perspective, Bingham shared the figures that she is seeing at her facility. She explained that at this time of year, the hospital would be using around 175 of its 240 beds. Currently, even with physicians not performing elective surgeries or other non-urgent surgical treatments, 190 of their beds are occupied. She went on to explain that after all 15 of their designated beds for COVID-19 patients were taken, the hospital had to move to “Plan B” and add 12 more beds, then more after that. They are now at “Plan D” and still over capacity. Of their 59 COVID-19 patients, five were held in the emergency room due to the lack of beds.

“We are stretching to meet the need, but the stretching is becoming more difficult,” said Bingham. 

Bingham added, “Right now, this is an incredible strain on all of the health care workers, doctors and nurses … What our health care workers are dealing with right now is what we did three weeks ago. They can’t sustain at that. Even if we can continue to come up with beds, we can’t continue to come up with health care workers.”

Castillo commended the work of the health professionals, but said urged the public to do all they can to help.

“The hospitals are doing an amazing job managing their capacity,” said Castillo. “But, we cannot look at the hospital capacity until it gets full to make changes. Any changes we make in our behavior today is going to take about three weeks to show up in the hospitals. And, we’re already surging.” 

The growth in cases is alarming. In the two weeks since all four county judges came together to ask the public’s help in driving down the numbers, Cameron County COVID-19 cases jumped from 1,138 cases on June 13 to 2,183 cases as of Saturday. But, it doesn’t stand alone in seeing a drastic spike. Hidalgo County’s figures more than tripled, increasing from 1,050 to 3,294 cases as of Sunday, leaving the county no choice but to secure relief for its health workers from the state.

“We have been monitoring our hospital capacity and have concluded that the medical workers who are working tirelessly in our community could use additional help,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez. “Therefore, late Friday I asked the governor and the state’s emergency management operation for help by providing additional medical personnel. This is welcome relief at a time when the number of people needing hospital care continues to rise.”

While relief may come, officials still worry about overburdening the system. They dismissed talk of developing a “herd immunity” and of comparing the Rio Grande Valley to Europe or other parts of the country when it comes to recovery. With its prevalence of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity, residents are at a much higher risk of dying from COVID-19 due to these underlying health conditions and will take longer to fight off the disease. 

“We’re probably to the point where we all know somebody that has COVID-19,” said Bingham. “I believe that pretty soon we’ll all know somebody that’s very sick with COVID-19, and that’s our concern at this point.”

Because of this, Castillo spoke frankly about the need to prioritize COVID-19 cases based on severity.

“More and more people are getting sick at home,” said Castillo. “Most people will get over this at home. Most people will get better at home. And, I know people are scared, and they want to get tested, and they want to know what’s going on. The testing centers are increasing, capacity for testing is increasing, but you’ll most likely get better at home. We need to save our 911, our ambulances, our emergency rooms for true emergencies … If you think your life is in danger, if you think you can’t breathe, if you’re having chest pain, if you feel like you’re dying, if your loved one has become confused, they’ll be there for you. But, we need to make sure they’re available.”

By earnestly following the recommended guidelines, sheltering in place and social distancing, the leaders believe things can improve just as quickly as they went south. But, everyone must act now.

“This, my friends, is not a hospital problem,” said Vela. “This is not a doctor problem; this is not a county judge problem; this is a people problem, and all of us fit into the equation when it comes to solving this problem,”

Vela continued, “We’re in a position where we’re asking everybody to do their part now. Not mañana; not next week; not after the Fourth of July; effective right now.”

While many are becoming apathetic to these warnings, the leaders emphasized that this the only solution to slowing the spread. Residents must continue to do as they did before restrictions were lifted.

“I believe the governor’s mentality was giving people the opportunity to be responsible and [show] self-restraint,” said Vela. “He gave people an inch, and they’ve taken a mile. That irresponsibility has us in a very dire situation in Cameron County.” 

Castillo added, “We need to learn from what happened. I’m not trying to scold anybody. The past is the past. Obviously, the science is showing that that didn’t work out. It’s hard to argue with this chart. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. We’re seeing it. So, let’s change now. Let’s do it differently now. And, let’s hope that that’s enough to start flattening out this curve.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows an image from a recent news conference held by Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., in Brownsville, Texas. (Photo credit: Ron Whitlock/Ron Whitlock Reports).

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