Starr officials say local coronavirus cases inevitable, but urge calm

RIO GRANDE CITY — Starr County officials view the arrival of local cases of the coronavirus as inevitable and hosted a preparedness summit Wednesday to urge the community to prepare for when that day comes.

“It’s something that we do need to plan for,” said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. “It’s a matter of when, it’s not a matter of if, so we just want to stay ahead of the game as to what are we going to do as a community.”

Dr. Jose Vazquez, the Starr County local health authority, lead Wednesday’s summit and reiterated that the purpose of it was to urge preparedness.

“Because the fact is that we are going to get this disease at our doors sooner or later,” Vazquez said. “This seems to be an unavoidable fact so we need to be ready and to know how we are going to respond the day the first case starts here in Starr County.”

Vazquez said he wanted to implement a three-tier plan of action, the details of which still need to be developed by the community through a series of meetings.

“Those are three empty pockets right now,” Vazquez said. “I am going to ask each one of you at the level of your organization, at the level of your expertise, to put your ideas and your strategy into each one of these pockets.”

The three tiers of the plan will be for when 1) the first community acquired case in the state is reported, 2) the first case is reported within 150 miles of the Rio Grande Valley, and 3) the county has its first case.

Some local entities have already begun developing contingencies.

At the Starr County Memorial Hospital, Martha Torres, director of nursing, said they’ve been working with the hospital administration to ensure they have the necessary supplies.

Noel Garcia, the hospital’s director of EMS, said they have started preparing a unit that will be used when there are local coronavirus cases.

When the first case of the virus is reported here, that person would likely be quarantined at their home, said Dr. Elizabeth Cuevas, the preparedness and response manager for the Texas Department of State Health Services for Region 11 which encompasses the area just north of Corpus Christi to Laredo and down to Brownsville.

“As soon as we have a confirmed community-acquired COVID-19 case,” she said. “We have a team of social workers and nurses that will be paired and assigned to that person and their family.”

The nurse would provide medical support as well as testing while the case manager would support the family and deal with providing resources to the quarantined individual while they are confined to their home.

Cuevas added they already have a team activated for their incident command system at their base in Harlingen.

Also making preparations is the Rio Grande City school district, according to Superintendent Vilma Garza.

Garza said that if school closures are required, they would continue some type education at home with the help of software programs.

“For those students who may not have internet capability, we will prepare packets for those students to engage in so that everyone has something to work on to continue educating our students,” she said. “I know it’s not the same but it’s something that we can afford to provide our parents.”

While continuing to urge calm in the community, Vazquez also emphasized the seriousness of the disease, noting that it had a higher mortality rate than the flu.

Health officials, he said, recognized that in half of the cases, people don’t show any symptoms.

A quarter of the cases are mild and only require self-quarantine, Vazquez said, while only the remaining quarter may require hospitalization.

Of those that do, Vazquez said that between 0.5% to 3% — depending on the data source — die from the disease.

The rate of 0.5% means one person out of every 200 people will die of this disease while going by 3% rate means three out of 100 will die from the disease.

“This is about 20 times more than what the common influenza is,” Vazquez said. “So this is something that we need to take seriously.”

However, he also urged calm and explained that the mortality rate was dependent on the number of people that were tested.

“The number of people tested has been minimal in this country if we were to compare with South Korea or China or Italy,” he said. “So once we have a more readily available test to be used in the regular, general population, that mortality rate will significantly decrease.”