Just two days after he issued a countywide “shelter at home” order, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez is seeking scientific data to measure the effectiveness of the order in flattening the curve of COVID-19 infection locally.
“I’m very concerned that I’m seeing much more cars than I was hoping to see,” Cortez said during a video-conference interview with The Monitor on Saturday.
Cortez was speaking of the traffic he has continued to see after issuing the order Thursday in the county’s most stringent attempts yet to reduce the spread of the virus.
Late Saturday, the county said an additional nine people have tested positive, bringing the total to 27. Some 287 people in Hidalgo County have been tested for the coronavirus, with 144 returning negative, and 116 pending.
Cortez said the good news is that only two people who have tested positive required hospitalization. The remaining 25 are isolating at home and expected to recover, he said.
With those numbers expected to continue to rise as more people get tested, the county judge wants to know if the shelter at home order will have any effect in stemming the tide of infection. To that end, he has partnered with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to analyze how the virus is impacting the region.
“I asked them to do an infection analysis and a projection. They came up with a model and we put some data in the model,” Cortez said.
“That tells me where we are, where we’re standing on the efforts that we’ve done,” he said.
In the face of an unprecedented crisis, Cortez said he and other local leaders are trying to balance the government’s response in restricting movement with maintaining the freedoms most Americans are accustomed to.
“If we overestimate the surge, then we can stay as we are,” Cortez said of the current shelter order. “If we underestimated our surge, then we have to make stricter adjustments.”
Finding that balance requires accounting for a number of variables — not all of which are within the county’s power to control, such as the cross-border movement of people at the Rio Grande Valley’s several ports of entry.
Cortez has discussed the issue with several border mayors. “Those are concerns that we have. We only have laws that we can enforce and unless the law changes, then … how do you tell somebody he can’t do what he legally can?” Cortez said. “But we’re going to have to figure those things out because this is a public health emergency.”
Then there is the state of the local healthcare industry to consider, from how much medical staff is available, to the availability of personal protective equipment and hospital beds for the critically ill.
Finally, businesses and services that have been deemed “essential” also need to find balance between keeping their employees safe and keeping critical infrastructure operating. County employees, for instance, will soon move to a week-long split shift structure, Cortez said.
One shift will work for a week, then spend a week at home while a second shift works. County workers will be paid regardless, the county judge said.
For Cortez, all those variables play a vital role in determining what steps the county will take as the pandemic continues.
“I’m studying that with our legal department. And to the extent that I would have the authority to impose more tighter restrictions, I’m willing to do everything that I can to make it as strict as I can for the good of the public,” he said.