EDINBURG, TEXAS – Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County’s local health authority, has given his wrap-up on 2020, a year like no other for his profession.

At times during the year, Hidalgo County led the nation in deaths and hospitalization rates caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, at one point, Melendez, a frontline healthcare hero, himself tested positive for COVID-19.

While things appear to have settled down, Melendez said Rio Grande Valley residents cannot let their guard down during the holiday season. He urged everyone to continue to practice good personal hygiene, keep wearing face masks in public, to practice social distancing, and not gather in large crowds.

“Our community was Ill-prepared. The world was ill-prepared (for COVID-19),” Melendez said, in his 2020 year in review.

“The virus is like the marathon and you don’t train for the marathon the weekend before. When you are a boxer you don’t go to your wife and say, hey, babe, have seen my shorts I have a world championship fight next week. It doesn’t work that way. You have to be training, you have to be ready.”

In an exclusive podcast with the Rio Grande Guardian, Melendez rattled off a number of grim milestones, noting that the pandemic was at its worst in Hidalgo County in July 2020.

“Where did we fail? Our population was very sick. Our baseline state of health… despite being the No. 1 in diabetes, hyper-tension, morbid obesity, lack of access to healthcare, 20 percent un- or under-insured, a porous border to a third world country that is just chaotic, 29 being the average age in our community, it was the perfect storm. Despite that we were the worst among the worse.”

Melendez said he cannot accept praise for a job well done. 

“When people come to me and say, you guys have done a great job, well, I don’t think so. I think we have made a great effort but you measure a job by outcome. You don’t say, oh my God, you have really tried hard to paint that house. No, you say the house looks good. We had the highest mortality rate.”

So, did the efforts of healthcare professionals on the frontline in the battle against the coronavirus match the results? Melendez said, no. 

“Our efforts were gargantuan, but our results, you cannot argue… our results were not good,” he said. 

“And so, our lesson learned, from my perspective, is we need to have our community in a better state of health.”

Melendez said the Valley has to do better with diabetes. That it needs to be better controlled. “The better state of health our population is from the get-go, the better trained you are for that marathon, the better you are going to do.”

A big part of the problem, Melendez argued, is that within the healthcare industry, specialist and sub-specialist physicians are more valued that primary care and family doctors.

“And so, we in the healthcare industry, including myself, have placed our resources on those lines of services that are more profitable. So, do you make more money transplanting a kidney? Do you make more money transplanting a liver? Do you make more money doing open heart surgery? Or do you make more money controlling diabetes? Or controlling obesity?” Melendez said.

“Think about it. If you replace a joint, a knee you may get paid $20,000 by an insurance company or Medicaid to the hospital. But, if you have an office visit you get $70 or $60. Medicaid pays $22, Medicare pays $36.”

Melendez said the system was not set up the way it is because doctors and hospitals are greedy. 

“But the system itself was set up so we would focus on those lines of service that are more profitable. That does not translate into what is the best state of our community. Before, people would say, I have a great job, I have good insurance, I work out, I’m thin, my family is healthy, we eat at Harvest, we eat good food. My neighbor? Well, I am sorry I cannot be responsible for the world. What we forgot is during a pandemic your family’s security and health is only as good as your neighbors. We were not cognizant of what was going on with our neighbors because we weren’t trained to think that way.”

In closing, Melendez said that as it relates to healthcare, the financial system and the cultural system failed the region.

“I have learned that if we can petition our elected officials to give us those resources to establish these healthcare centers for people that don’t have access… and you educate people over and over and over to manage something that does not hurt, that is not sexy, you don’t even know it, like blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, if we can just get the population buying into that…,” Melendez said.

“We need to get more resources allocated to provide management for primary care diseases and we need to have a cultural shift in the way we give value to those things that are considered important.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Dr. Ivan Melendez. (Photo credit: Sky News).

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