HARLINGEN, Texas – Immediately following a news conference hosted by Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, Valley Baptist Health System CEO Manny Vela asked to be forgiven for being so impassioned.

In his remarks from the podium, Vela had made a heartfelt plea for Cameron County residents to adhere to best practices in the fight to stem the surge of COVID-19. He noted that hospitalizations for the virus had quadrupled at Valley Baptist-Harlingen over the past eight weeks. 

“Forgive me, I get a little impassioned. This is the reality. We are seeing our numbers quadruple for COVID patients at Valley Baptist Harlingen over the last eight weeks. I think that holds true for most hospitals in the county,” Vela said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

Vela said he had two messages to give to the community.

“One, thanking everybody in our community who has helped us by following the best practices. It got us to the position of being manageable for our COVID numbers. Unfortunately we have had Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. We have seen our numbers escalate. So, the first part of the message is thank everybody. We just need you to keep toeing the line with us.”

The second message was aimed at those who have not been wearing masks, not washing their hands regularly, and not practiced social distancing.

“The second part of my message is for that small part of our community who are simply not following the best practices because of ignorance or arrogance or absolute lack of self respect for others. They have got to receive this message. It is not too late for them to get on the bandwagon and protect our community.”

Vela said if the community as a whole will follow best practices, his team of frontline healthcare workers will be better protected from COVID.

“We need people not to jeopardize my team but to help me protect my team because that is the only way we can protect our community. That is something they can help us with.”

Vela’s fear is that because of families and friends gathering over Christmas and New Year, the number of COVID cases could get up to the record levels seen in the Rio Grande Valley last July and August. 

“We will see the impact of Christmas and New Year over the next few weeks. If we just look back and see how this escalated into July and August, we have seen that rodeo, as they say, and it is not a pretty rodeo. We are trying to prevent us from getting to those extreme numbers again in our community. We want to continue to help folks.”

Vela said he works with “heroes” every day. 

“My primary goal, every day I wake up is to protect my family to the best of my ability and I am going to protect my team to the best of my ability. That is the passion in my message today.”

Asked if some people are getting tired of hearing about COVID and tired of being told to change their behavior because of it, Vela said: “I do think that is the case. But if they are tired think of my healthcare workers. They have been on the front lines for seven to eight months. It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week that we are asking people to follow these best practices.”

Asked if the Valley could see the number of COVID-related hospitalizations rise to the levels experienced last July, Vela said: “If we are not careful, we can. That is the frustration. We have been down this road. We have seen what can happen when people do not adhere to best practices. It behooves our community as a whole to follow best practices.”

It was pointed out to Vela that everybody visiting HEB or Walmart is wearing a mask, implying that most people are listening to health experts. He responded that there are two areas of real concern. 

“Gatherings and the age group between 18 and 29. I have children in that age group. It tell them nobody is immune. I ask them, how can I give that message to people of your age group. To that age group I say, it should matter to those around you. Your family members. Anyone around them that are susceptible.”

At the same news conference, Cameron County’s health administrator, Esmeralda Guajardo told the Rio Grande Guardian that around 25 percent of healthcare workers have not taken advantage of the COVID-19 vaccine. Asked to comment on this, Vela said:

“This has been the problem for eight months now. You have had messages that this is a hoax, then you have messages that the vaccine is not safe. Unfortunately, it is coming from the same sources. That the vaccine is not necessary or not needed. If somebody still thinks this is a hoax, I do not know where they are living. I invite them to turn their TVs on right now and look at what is opening in California, what has happened in New York, what has happened in other pockets. I will tell you, Dr. Fauci is one of my heroes. He says it (the vaccine) is safe. I am urging my folks to take the vaccine. It is not mandatory at this point. I am urging my folks to help protect our team.”

Vela concluded: “Let’s do what is right because it is the right thing to do.”

Here is a podcast featuring the COVID-19 news conference hosted by Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell. Various health professionals spoke at the event:

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story and podcast shows Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Health System.

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