WESLACO, RGV – It is not just the false narrative that the Rio Grande Valley is unsafe that is affecting the ability of economic development councils to attract new corporations to the region, says healthcare advocate Salomon Torres.

Another factor at play is the health and wellness of its workforce. 

“Cities in the Valley already have a difficult time attracting companies when the cities are branded with false labels about being insecure, about being unstable, about not having an adequate infrastructure. These are all misconceptions by outside investors and companies,” Torres said.

“On top of that, if you add rankings of being the fattest city or being the unhealthiest community or having a diabetes rate three times higher than other parts of the country, that is another big strike against the ability of any city or even a private investment group that is trying to bring in a large fish to this area. Those are strikes against our area. We will never make it past the initial review process with those kind of rankings.”

An unhealthy workforce not only impacts the work of economic development leaders, Torres pointed out. “It is affecting the livelihood of families, their ability to stay in the workforce. When people retire early because of disability due to these chronic conditions, it has a big ripple effect on that family and, in turn, the community they are from.”

Torres is policy and development manager for Unidos Contra La Diabetes, a non-profit hosted by UT Health Science Center-Houston, in affiliation with the School of Public Health in Brownsville. He made his comments in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian immediately following a Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council board meeting where he helped persuade the council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties to apply for a $3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Torres explained what the application for federal dollars is for.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports local programs to improve public health in general. They have issued a call for proposals to communities of 900,000 or more that want to propose how they are going to do initiatives, strategies, activities, to reduce and prevent diabetes, plus other chronic conditions, such as heart disease and stroke.”

Knowing that no one city or county in the Rio Grande Valley has a population of 900,000, Torres, through UCD, approached Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and LRGVDC to see if they would be willing to apply on behalf of the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy.

“None of our counties can meet the 900,000 population threshold. Development Council staff concurred that it was a good opportunity and so we have now developed a concept of what we would do under this grant proposal if we were to get funded,” Torres said.

“If you propose to work just in the diabetes arena, you can go up to $1.5 million a year for five years. If you also want to address cardiovascular and stroke conditions of our population, you can go for $3 million. We have decided jointly to do the latter, to go after the higher amount, the $3 million, with an average award of $1.5 million expected for the successful awardees.”

Torres said the application to CDC is three-faceted. If successful, LRGVDC, Texas A&M, and UCD would have funding for three different health-related programs. The A&M initiative is quite novel, Torres explained. 

“The Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health proposes to expand a screening system they have at the pulga, or flea market, in Alamo. For several years they have been screening individuals at no cost to assess whether they are a pre-diabetic or not. That has led to a lot of people being aware of whether they were diabetic or not,” Torres said.

“The screening allows people to see if they have the conditions that could lead to diabetes. They can see if they have family history issues that could raise a red flag. If we are successful, A&M would expand the screening service at Alamo and build a duplicate site at the Brownsville pulga. Brownsville is the largest city in the Valley. We want to make sure that screening service is available for our low-income population in that area of the Valley.”

With regard to the LRGVDC component of the application to CDC, Torres said the council of government has a very successful program working with individuals that have been released from hospitals with health problems. 

“The Development Council is proposing to expand this program so that more individuals can be monitored over a 30-day period and reduce the rates of readmission to hospitals through providing families with the support they need, with guidance on the health condition of the individual. There would be more hands-on case-management with that person.”

Torres said it will not come as a surprise to many that the people in hospital that the LRGVDC program helps are suffering from diabetes, heart disease or stroke-related conditions. “The Development Council is proposing to expand that program to address a larger population,” he said.

Unidos Contra La Diabetes would also have a bigger role to play if the application for funding from CDC is successful.

“We want to assist the development council, Texas A&M, and all our other partners in the area that are involved in public health. We are proposing to do a regional communications campaign where we would use all modes of communication to educate the public about pre-diabetes and related conditions,” Torres said.

“Everything from ads on buses and billboards to new printed material and the use of social media. There are also some issues that are more narrowly tailored, such as educating people of the dangers of consuming too much sugar or sugary beverages. That type of campaign has been done in other cities very well. We want to add that on to this public health campaign.”

Torres said he envisages UCD being a clearing house for all diabetes prevention programs that are being offered in the Rio Grande Valley. 

“A lot of people do not know where to go if they want to receive training about lifestyle changes, whether it is physical fitness or attrition. The information is scattered and we want to be a clearing house for that, in partnership with the Development Council. Those are some of the activities we are proposing.”

Asked to elaborate on the proposal to boost A&M’s work in Valley flea markets, Torres said:

“Working at the Alamo pulga has proven to be a reliable source of insight into the health condition of our population. The demographics of the visitors to the pulga is exactly the population that we are trying to address, the underserved segment of the population, and so it fits perfectly in our plans to move quickly. It is almost like when you face a health epidemic in a region, you want to quickly get to people who have not yet crossed that health condition that prescribes them diabetic. The screening program is one of the quick ways to address that.”

As for the UCD component of the proposal going to CDC, Torres said it is all about getting families to talk about diabetes and what people should be doing to avoid becoming pre-diabetic. 

“That is what our campaign is going to trigger. It is going to trigger a lot of discussion about eating vegetables, about not consuming too many sugary beverages, about lifestyle changes. It is going to be a well-funded program, if we get awarded, that will not last six months or a year. This is a five-year initiative. We want to put a dent on those very high statistics that we have in the Valley for both diabetics and pre-diabetic individuals.”