COVID-19 patients filling county hospital beds; congressmen call for National Guard, field hospitals

Harlingen Medical Center is seen Monday afternoon. Harlingen Medical Center and Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville are joining Valley Baptist Medical Center's Harlingen and Brownsville hospitals urging residents to take precautions to cut steadily rising COVID-19 cases. Elsa Cavazos/Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN — Cameron County’s hospitals are warning of a growing crisis as COVID-19 patients fill more hospital beds.

Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to reassign 5,500 state National Guard troops to help deploy field hospitals.

“An emergency situation has now developed with COVID-19 cases exceeding hospital capacity and new cases increasing,” Gonzalez and Vela stated.

“Lacking space for COVID-19 patients in ICUs, emergency rooms across the Lower Rio Grande Valley are forced to continue to care for those who need intensive treatment even as new patients arrive at higher and higher rates,” they stated.

On Sunday, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. sent residents’ cell phones a “public safety alert” warning of the hospital crisis.

“The COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly across Cameron County,” the message stated. “Local hospitals are approaching capacity.”

Treviño urged residents to take precautions to curb the virus’ spread.

“Protect yourself and your family,” the message stated. “Stay home except for essential activities, wear a face covering and avoid gatherings with people outside your household.”

Go to your doctor first

At Harlingen City Hall, Josh Ramirez, the city’s public health director, said more residents fearing they’ve contracted the coronavirus are rushing hospitals.

“There are people running to hospitals seeking attention but some of these calls are not medical emergencies,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said residents concerned they may have been exposed to the virus should call their doctors before going to the hospital.

In many cases, residents are suffering from allergies, respiratory problems, flu and colds — not COVID-19, he said.

“We want to make sure people understand that if you feel sick, consult with your personal doctor first,” Ramirez said. “Let them evaluate you before just rushing to the hospital.”

Ramirez said most residents recover from COVID-19 infections at home — without going to a hospital.

“We want to make sure the right people get medical attention,” he said, blaming some of the surge on “a panic reaction.”

Hospitals in crisis

In Cameron County, Valley Baptist Medical Center’s Harlingen and Brownsville hospitals are joining Harlingen Medical Center and Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville urging residents to take precautions to cut steadily rising COVID-19 cases.

In the last two weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations have quadrupled as cases have surged from about 1,236 to 2,183.

“The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Cameron County has quadrupled in the past two weeks and we are deeply concerned,” the hospitals stated in a press release.

The hospitals’ message primarily targets “young adults.”

“We need our community and particularly the young adult population … to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent an unmanageable surge in our hospitals,” the press release stated.

Across the county, more young adults and children are being hospitalized, officials stated.

“The age-range of those hospitalized with COVID-19 includes all ages, with an increasing number of young adults and children requiring hospitalization and not just those that are already critically ill,” the press release stated.

Hospital officials are citing the lifting of state and local orders mandating residents without justifiable excuses stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On May 1, Gov. Greg Abbott allowed the order to expire while launching a campaign aimed at reopening businesses to lift the state’s economic shutdown.

At the time, the county’s total case count stood at about 432.

“During the initial stay-home-work safe orders, we flattened the curve,” the hospitals stated. “COVID-19 is spreading quickly because too many people thought it was safe to go back to life as usual. While the reopening of the economy undeniably added challenges, working as a community together we can reduce the spread while getting back to work.”

Hospitals expanding services

Now, the hospitals are expanding COVID-19 treatment areas.

“We are dedicating additional areas of the hospital specifically for the care of COVID-19-positive patients and persons under investigation,” Patti Tanner, a spokeswoman for Valley Baptist hospitals, stated.

The hospitals are also adding more staff to handle the rising caseloads.

“We are implementing bonus pay for certain critical staff and have arranged for traveling RNs to support COVID care in the hospital,” Tanner stated.

The hospitals urged residents to take precautions to curb the virus’ spread.

“It is proven that when people wear a face mask in public, maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from others and practice frequent hand hygiene, it reduces the spread of the virus,” the hospitals stated in their press release.

Congressmen call for field hospitals

Meanwhile, Gonzalez and Vela called on Abbott to reassign state National Guard troops sent here to protect the border.

“In South Texas, we are rapidly reaching the point at which resources will no longer be enough to provide hospital care for the growing COVID-19 caseload and we urge the establishment of field hospitals and deployment of military personnel to prevent a humanitarian crisis in communities on the U.S.-Mexico border,” Gonzalez and Vela stated.

“We urge you to work with the White House to withdraw the current presidential authorization designating up to 5,500 troops for border protection and shift those resources immediately to provide medical support and expand hospital capacity to help the state of Texas contain the virus and protect the nation. The deployment of military members with training, equipment and technology along with deployable field hospitals is urgently needed to address shortfalls including testing, ICU beds and emergency department capacity,” Gonzalez and Vela stated.