COVID-19 cases rising faster; Survivors asked to donate plasma for treatment

A sign directs those wanting to be tested for COVID-19 to the designated testing area Wednesday at the free mobile COVID-19 testing site at Maria Luisa Ruiz Guerra County Annex.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

It looks like health experts were right when they said reopening the economy without adequate COVID-19 testing would probably lead to a new surge in cases of the virus.

Cameron County reported its 951st COVID-19 case on June 9. As county Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. reported at a Wednesday press conference, a total of 15,320 had been tested as of Tuesday, resulting in 1,888 negative results. Among the positive cases, 658 residents who have cleared or recovered and 40 county residents have died of the virus, 28 of them residents of nursing homes in Harlingen and one a resident of Spanish Meadows nursing home in Brownsville.

With the county nearing the 1,000-case mark, Treviño said there’s no solace in the fact that it’s taken longer to get to this point than originally predicted. Since Memorial Day weekend, when reopening got underway in a big way, reports of new cases have increased by double digits, he said.

“ Last night’s (Tuesday) numbers showed an increase in cases to 32 positive,” Treviño said. “Three weeks ago we were at 15 cases.”

He said he doesn’t disagree that the economy should be reopened, though the increase in cases is due to the relaxation of restrictions and people mingling. The country trend roughly matches that of Texas as a whole, which is regularly breaking records in terms of seven-day COVID-19 case averages and hospitalizations statewide. Treviño said it’s also troublesome that more of those getting sick country-wide are trending younger, ranging in age from 20s through 50s.

Dr. James Castillo, health authority for Cameron County Public Health, said he’s seeing a significant increase in infections among family clusters.

“ People are acquiring it in the community and bringing it home and infecting their family,” he said at the press conference. “We’ve seen a steady rise since people have been out of their homes and had more activity. This just underlines that, even though things are reopening, we can do better.”

Although, the county’s authority to mandate the wearing of facial coverings, social distancing, shelter-in-place and other restrictions was superseded by order of Gov. Greg Abbott as of May 1, those are the only things that will prevent the virus from spreading even more, potentially exceeding the capacity of the county’s hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. Castillo said everyone should keep wearing masks or other facial coverings, maintain physical distance from others and avoid crowded, indoor spaces.

Regular hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 cases are at about 40 percent capacity, while ICU beds are at about 25 percent capacity, he said, noting that it’s not unusual for patients with the virus to be in ICU beds for weeks rather than days. Castillo noted that the uptick in new cases has steepened since cases were in the 700s.

“ Some of that is from increased testing, but what you can’t deny is that hospitalizations are also going up,” he said. “There’s definitely a possibility that if this trend continues the hospital capacity will start approaching its limits.”

That’s a situation the county doesn’t want, Castillo said. While nobody is talking about returning to a total shutdown, “it just becomes more and more important for each of us to do what we can,” he said.

Castillo put out a call to county residents who have recovered from the virus to donate their plasma, which could help save other lives.

“ There’s an experimental treatment where people who have recovered can donate their blood plasma, which contains the antibodies that fight the virus,” he said. “They can donate those to give to patients who are very sick in the hospital. … Currently we’re working with DHR Health Institute for Research and Development in coordinating the plasma donation.”

For more information, residents can call the county public health department at (956) 247-3650 or DHR Health Institute at (956) 215-3166.

“ This might be a live-saving intervention,” Castillo said. “And now that we’re seeing more and more people end up in the hospital with this, there’s going to be a greater need for this potentially life-saving treatment, so I’d really like people to know about this and know about the opportunity. Those who have recovered might be able to save lives.”

“ We’ve seen it elsewhere, but now the Valley needs to do its part,” Treviño said.

The judge said Abbott has given no indication of whether he’s willing to put the brakes on reopening if the situation gets too bad. The governor is moving ahead with his phased reopening plan, which in part involves continuing to relax restrictions on seating capacity for bars and restaurants.

Treviño said it’s obvious that the mandates the county had in place to slow the spread of the virus were working, and that the same practices — wearing masks, social distancing and such — can still prevent a lot of people from getting sick and maybe even dying.

“ We’re not saying shut everything down, but let’s just practice these good habits, and we’ll be able to protect ourselves at the same time we’re opening the economy,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be an either/or, and it certainly shouldn’t be a political issue to wear a mask or to keep your distance from other people. It’s just the right thing to do.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com