The new normal: Virus spread puts county in crisis mode

Chief Executive Officer for Valley Baptist Medical Center Brownsville Leslie Bingham, from left, speaks as Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevi–o Jr. holds a press conference COVID-19 update Tuesday morning. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

At a Tuesday press conference, Cameron County Public Health Authority James Castillo said new studies are showing that 80 percent of coronavirus infections are the result of large social gatherings where people aren’t social distancing and wearing masks.

With that and other critical information in mind, county Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. signed an amended emergency order June 29 mandating the use of facial coverings, placing restrictions on social gatherings, enacting a county-wide curfew and temporarily closing access to county beaches. When it comes to facial coverings, the county is no longer simply strongly recommending that residents use them outside the home. The county is mandating it, though violating the mandate carries no civil or criminal penalty, in keeping with the latest order from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

Businesses can be penalized, however, for not requiring employees and customers to wear facial coverings at all times when on the premises. Also, under the governor’s order the county is not allowing outside gatherings of more than 100 people except for religious services, youth camps, recreational sports activities and amusements parks. Social gatherings, meanwhile, are limited to groups of no more than 10 non-family members, Treviño said at Tuesday’s press conference.

Closing all county beach and park access through July 13 is meant to try to get a handle on the virus that has spread rapidly since Memorial Day weekend through community transmission. All four hospitals in the county could be overwhelmed if new infections continue at the current pace.

“The reason we decided to take these measures is based on the fact that in the last two weeks we’ve seen, in consultation with hospitals, the impact of the increase in cases is having on our hospitalization,” Treviño said.

If the county fails to bring down the rate of infection, the results “could be disastrous and fatal” for hospital patients, and not just those infected with COVID-19, he said.

Also speaking at the press conference, Leslie Bingham, CEO of Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, issued an apology to residents of Brownsville for long wait times in the hospital’s emergency room, explaining that the ER is holding COVID-19 patients because there aren’t enough in-patient treatment beds for those patients.

“That slows down the emergency care process for everyone else, so right now people are waiting a long time,” she said. “Unfortunately some people are leaving without receiving care. The emergency rooms take care of a lot of the community’s needs. Right now the community experiencing a tremendous amount of frustration with the local emergency rooms.”

Matt Wolthoff, CEO of Harlingen Medical Center, said his 20-bed emergency room is currently housing 25 COVID-19 patients, and that staffing is stretched nearly to the limit.

“The challenges we’re facing have a lot to do with our ability to staff for this pandemic,” he said.

Castillo said public health experts aren’t surprised by the surge and increasing hospitalizations, which they warned would happen, and said the surge isn’t close to being over. Once a person is admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, they’re not leaving in a hurry, he said.

“The average time a person is expected to be in the hospital is a little bit more than one to two weeks, until they either get better and leave or they die in the hospital,” Castillo said. “It’s really important that everybody take this extremely seriously. This is not going to go away.”

Wearing a mask, sheltering at home, frequent hand washing and avoiding crowds are key to slowing the spread, he said.

“This is not going to go away,” Castillo said. “We’re going to have to live with this illness for at least the next year, even with a vaccine. This is going to go on at least for another year. It’s the new normal. People are going to have to learn to adapt and live with it.”