State health officials identify local COVID-19 hot spots

Health officials monitoring the number of COVID-19 cases locally identified Hidalgo County and South Padre Island, specifically, as coronavirus hot spots following the large increase in cases throughout the Rio Grande Valley, in line with the increase in confirmed cases seen statewide.

“From what we’ve seen, Hidalgo County, South Padre Island — especially South Padre Island in our region — has been a large hot spot,” said Dr. Emilie Prot, regional director for Public Health Region 11 of the Department of State Health Services.

During one day of testing at South Padre Island, she said there was a 25% positivity rate among members of the public who chose to get tested.

“So that is extremely alarming,” Prot said. “We haven’t even seen that in a nursing home setting.”

She also added that Starr County was an area of concern where there has been a steep jump in cases over the last several days, including Saturday when the county reported 106 new cases of COVID-19 on that day alone.

The driver of the increases locally, she said, is likely more travel and more interactions between people.

“There hasn’t been one business, or this or that,” she said, clarifying that it was just that people are generally getting too close to one another. “And that has been exponentially increasing the number of cases.”

With Starr County’s relatively small population — that of nearly 65,000 residents — the county’s surge in cases places them at about 573 cases per 100,000 people, according to the cases reported by the county and the state’s population estimates.

“I strongly believe it has a lot to do with the relaxation on the measures we had put in place before,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, the county’s local health authority, of the recent spike.

“We had under control, the situation, while we were able to impose fines on people breaking the mandatory regulations that we had implemented,” he said during a virtual news conference on Saturday. “We were able to control the number of cases.”

Vazquez also stressed that the increase in cases was not due to more testing that has become available through the mobile testing sites that are run by DSHS, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Military Department.

“Certainly we have increased the number of testing and we have performed a very significant number of tests over the last few weeks,” Vazquez said. However, most of the positive cases were still coming from the county’s own private drive-thru testing facility.

At a point when the state — through those mobile testing sites and the county’s own site — had both tested about 1,200 people in Starr County, Vazquez said 90 people had tested positive from the state’s sites while 150 people had tested positive through the county’s site.

He pointed out that most of the 106 new cases reported on Saturday, with the exception of three or four, were results from tests administered through the county’s site.

“This is not just that we are testing more and because the National Guard is free and they are not asking for symptoms and they are not asking for a prescription, more people get tested and more people are positive — the numbers do not sustain that fact,” Vazquez said.

“The facts are that we are seeing a lot more positive just mainly because there are more infected cases in the county,” he said. “There are more people sick today by a large number than what we had four weeks ago.”

Willacy County, with an even smaller population of about 22,000 residents, also has a high rate of cases: 420 per 100,000 people.

Both Starr’s and Willacy’s rates are higher than those of Hidalgo and Cameron counties which are at 194 and 361 cases per 100,000 people, respectively.

Such a rate can’t be calculated for South Padre Island as the city hasn’t officially reported any confirmed cases. The reason being that most people who test positive there officially reside elsewhere, according to Prot.

“A lot of people actually travel to South Padre on the weekends or during the week, but not that many people actually live there,” Prot said. “So those who went to test — and those are the people that are reported — they’re always reported by where they live, so looking at their residence, and so they were reported specifically to where they reside.”

With that in mind, she warned of the dangers that people traveling to and from the Island posed for the entire area.

“People that are staying there or spending the summer there, if they go test but they’re still there in a hotel for a month or for a weekend, well then they’re going to go back home and then take it back home,” she said, “so having that amount of positivity rate raises that alarm that it’s a risk for all of our community.”

But there is a way to travel there safely, she said.

“I was just there this past weekend and I stayed at an AirBnB, and afterward, I went to pick up food so I did not dine in,” she said. “So you can take precautions and you can still enjoy and not necessarily be staying home all the time, but you have to take those precautions.”