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Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr., held a news conference on Monday, July 13, 2020. (Photo: Ron Whitlock/Ron Whitlock Reports)

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The four county judges of the Rio Grande Valley have written to Gov. Greg Abbott to ask for more power to handle the fight against COVID-19.

If they get it they could reinstate a shelter-in-place order, on the advice of healthcare professionals. 

“We want the authority the governor took away from us in May,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr.

Treviño said the current set up, whereby the governor is signing executive orders which county judges have to implement, is “creating a legal conundrum” and confusion.

“We have to accept that one size does not fit all. We realized that not all areas need shelter-in-place. If you don’t want to order a statewide mandate with regard to shelter in place, give that approval to the local authority to make that decision.”

Asked what he thought of a letter sent to Gov. Abbott by a group of nearly 200 Valley physicians that called for the reinstatement of a shelter-in-place order, Treviño said: “It makes a lot of sense to me.”

The group of physicians who sent the letter is called the RGV COVID-19 Physician Task Force. Here is the group’s letter to Gov. Abbott:

July 9, 2020

Dear Governor Abbott,

We are the Rio Grande Valley COVID-19 Physician Task Force, a group of over 170-health-care providers who serve the 1.3 million patient population of Hidalgo County.

As the medical caretakers of our community, we urge you to take action immediately to implement decisive measures to stop the exponential spread of COVID-19. We ask that you establish a shelter-in-place mandate for non-essential personnel in our community.

The time to act is now. When the initial shelter-in-place order was present, we were able to sustain positive cases in the single digits. Once orders to shelter in place were lifted, our community did not demonstrate the basic social distancing needed to maintain minimal increases in positive cases. Since that time, the data has deteriorated to our current scenario:

  • The percent of positive tests has increased from 2.5 percent to ten percent.
  • The number of daily new cases has risen to more than 250 and has hit a record of 1,274.
  • The number of deaths from a total of nine during the entire first three months has increased to more than 15 daily.
  • The number of hospitalized patients has increased from eight to 741 currently with an initial count of three in our ICUs to 194 currently, 135 of those on ventilators. 
  • Our 12 hospitals were all on diversion today and people were being resuscitated on ambulance stretchers outside the hospitals and in hallways.

We are grateful that you acknowledge these increasing numbers had have asked for citizens to stay-at-home voluntarily. However, this Fourth of July, the beaches and parks were packed and many citizens were gathering with friends and family. Thus, we cannot rely on individuals to appropriately act without the mandate to shelter-in-place. 

We respectfully request you to issue a shelter-in-place order immediately and return the authority to local officials to issue and support the same mandate. 

Sincerely,

Rio Grande Valley COVID-19 Task Force.

The view from Hidalgo County


Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Hidalgo County health authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, and U.s. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County’s health authority, said he was one of the 172 physicians to sign the letter. Speaking at a news conference hosted by Congressman Vicente Gonzalez held at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce offices on Monday, Melendez said:

“The numbers speak for themselves. If we were doing social distancing, if we were following instructions, we would not see a continued increase and percent positive cases. Last week we were at eight percent, today we are 13 percent, The week before we were at five percent.”

Melendez said in his opinion not enough residents in Hidalgo County are adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

“The numbers don’t lie. Do you see an increase in the percent positive? That does not tell you more people are being tested. That tells you people doing things to propagate the advancement of the disease. And we all know what it is that worked before May 1st and we know what is happening now, after May 1st.”

Melendez said he is “respectful and supportive” of Gov. Abbott. 

“We think he is a great man. He is extremely resourceful and helpful but the only difference that we have is a lack of authority to make such big changes (as shelter-in-place).”

Congressman Gonzalez’s news conference was held to discuss the possibility of a private emergency field hospital being set up by the nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse. The nonprofit did the same thing in New York a few months back.

Interviewed after the news conference, Dr. Melendez said:

“If you read the letters that have been sent by the physicians, if you listen to what the judge has been saying, if you listen to what the congressman has been saying, we are passed the point of requesting a field hospital. We recognize that our current numbers are, quite frankly, catastrophic.”

Melendez added: “Ninety five percent of the physicians are in agreement about stay-at-home.”

Asked if Rio Grande Valley COVID-19 Task Force had sought the support of the Texas Medical Association, Melendez said: “Letters have been sent out to various organizations, the governors office, the emergency management office, FEMA, they have all come down, they have all assessed the situation, they are all in agreement we need additional resources.”

Asked if the spread of COVID-19 is now so bad in Hidalgo County that a reinstatement of the shelter-in-place order is necessary, Cortez said: “That is a very fluid matter and it changes constantly and whatever action we take to mitigate the spreading of this disease takes time.”

Cortez said action is being taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“We have to make a sacrifice to take control of this virus. If we do not make a sacrifice to take control of this virus, then the virus is taking control of us. And we know what happens. So, the answer is, either extreme in my opinion, is not the right way to go, the answer is going to be somewhere in between,” Cortez.

“We have to learn how to operate and continue to live our lives with this virus. I think there is a safe way to do it and that is what we are asking the governor, to give us an ability to locally make that decision so we can take control of this virus. If not, we are going to continue to have this.”

Cortez said he expects the number of positive cases of COVID-19 to increase.

“We tested over 12,000 people in the last three or four days. Today, when the results come in, we are expecting a very high number also. This is not going away. We have to take control of this and we know what happened when we had these restrictions and we know what happened when we removed the restrictions so I will let you be the judge.”

Congressman Gonzalez said he has made his position clear on whether a shelter-in-place order should be reinstated. He pointed out that he and Congressman Filemon Vela wrote to Gov. Abbott last week saying such an order should be reinstated in areas where COVID-19 is rampant, such as the Valley.

“If our numbers are at the rate that they are, if we are losing lives, if more infections are coming and the hospitalization rate continues to increase, the only way to resolve this is to implement a stay-at-home order,” Gonzalez said.

“Nobody wants to stay at home. I don’t want to stay at home but clearly it works. It has worked in the past. Clearly it saves lives and we are going through a very thick part of this pandemic and we have to be smart about it.”

Asked about the strong support coming from the medical community for a reinstatement of shelter-in-place, Gonzalez said: “They realize that it works. The medical community understands that the stay-at-home orders work, that we opened up a little too early, that people got out, they started going to the beach, they started going to parties and bars. All that congregation spiked our infection rate and people are dying.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr. (Photo: Ron Whitlock/Ron Whitlock Reports)

Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor assisted with the story from McAllen, Texas.


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