Underscoring the crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic in the Rio Grande Valley, one local health authority here made clear that official counts of positive cases and COVID-19 related deaths don’t paint the full picture.
“We are significantly under counted on the number of deaths we have here in our community,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, the Starr County health authority.
Currently, Vazquez estimated the county had 18 coronavirus-related deaths there but most had yet to be confirmed by the Department of State Health Services.
Five of those deaths occurred Friday, when Vazquez also confirmed 40 new cases of COVID-19.
Of the deaths that day, three were at Starr County Memorial Hospital — one was in a nursing home and the other was at a residence.
The concern with under-reported deaths, Vazquez explained, is that those numbers are tied to the amount of resources they receive from the state.
“The state plainly will not be sending help and we are at the position where we need help in an almost desperate situation,” he said.
The reason for the undercount is the amount of time it takes to certify the deaths as COVD-19 related which happens after DSHS receives a death certificate verifying the death as such.
Doing so is difficult with patients who die at home, which, so far, there have been two in Starr County.
Autopsies have not been performed on those patients so getting a death certificate that reflects the death was COVID related might be difficult.
“And I am sure that this is not a situation that we have in Starr County alone,’ Vazquez said. “I am sure that in Hidalgo and Cameron, as well as any other county, they have the same situations.”
At the Rio Grande City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, he said there were at least 37 positive cases among residents in addition to an undisclosed number of employees.
On top of that, he said they’ve had one or two deaths on a daily basis for about a week.
“The number of fatalities that they are getting is getting faster than the time that they have to be following the standard protocols — informing the primary care, informing the medical director, informing families and then informing me,” he said.
Compounding the severity of the situation is the lack of hospital beds elsewhere in the Valley.
On Friday, Vazquez said they tried to transfer two critically ill patients from Starr County Memorial Hospital but attempts to transfer them to any other hospital in the Valley were unsuccessful.
Those patients had to be transferred, via helicopter, to San Antonio and Dallas.
“There are no beds anywhere in the Valley, period. There is no way to transfer patients critically with COVID anywhere in the Valley,” Vazquez said. “All of the hospitals are on full diversion.”
He added that all the hospitals had many patients in their emergency rooms, often intubated and on ventilators.
“So we have been reaching that critical situation that we have been fearing for a long time,” Vazquez said. “We are becoming, basically, New York.”
Starr, as well as Hidalgo and Cameron counties, sent out a public safety alert via mobile devices informing the public that hospitals were at capacity and urging safety precautions, especially during the Fourth of July weekend.
“This is a very serious situation, we need to make sure that people understand that this is not the time to partying, to be gathering, to be celebrating anything,” Vazquez said. “There are lots of people dying in our community and it’s just going to be getting worse.”
Additionally, Valley Baptist Health System issued a news release Friday afternoon urging local residents to take all necessary precautions against COVID-19, reporting 141 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in designated units at its Harlingen branch and 97 are hospitalized at its Brownsville branch. Those patients put the hospitals at 102% and 101% occupancy, respectively, the release said.
“More than 40 percent of the hospitals’ current census is occupied by COVID-19 positive or suspected patients. What that means is that we are now at the point of grave concern,” Manny Vela, CEO for Valley Baptist Health System, wrote in the release. “Our entire teams are working around the clock to identify additional locations for patient care and we are working closely with the TRAC-V to bring in additional staff to help our hospitals manage this surge.”
On Friday, Hidalgo County reported that four more individuals died due to the coronavirus and another 438 were confirmed to have the disease.
One person in McAllen with COVID-19, a man in his 20s, died Friday, bringing the total in the county to 57.
“I want to extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of today’s victim. The loss of one person is one too many,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez wrote in a news release.
Another 278 people in the county were confirmed to have the disease Friday, with 478 people hospitalized, 115 of whom are in intensive care units.
“The 4th of July holiday is here and our best medical experts are telling me this is a critical weekend as we test the capacity of our hospital systems,” Cortez wrote. “Please consider your family’s safety and those of your neighbors as you plan your weekend activities.”
Cameron County health officials reported three more COVID-19 related deaths Friday.
Two residents of The Rio at Fox Hollow nursing home — an 84-year-old woman and an 86-year-old man — and a 66-year-old man who was hospitalized at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, were the latest fatalities caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, 63 people have died in Cameron County due to complications from the disease.
The county also reported 81 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 for a total of 2,692. Of those, 896 are active cases.
The 63 new cases are of residents from Brownsville, South Padre Island, La Feria, Harlingen, Los Fresnos, Los Indios, Port Isabel, Primera, Rancho Viejo and San Benito.
From the nursing homes, the county has so far reported 35 employees and 64 residents of the Veranda Nursing Home tested positive for COVID-19, including 11 who died.
At the Spanish Meadows nursing home in Brownsville, six employees and 11 residents tested positive, including two who died.
The Rio at Fox Hollow in Brownsville has reported 34 employees and 35 residents who tested positive, including five who died.
Also in Brownsville, the Alta Vista nursing home has had one employee and four residents test positive.
The Harlingen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has had four employees and one resident test positive and the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, which houses detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has had 10 employees and 75 detainees test positive.
Willacy County reported 39 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, 23 of which involve inmates at the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility.
The new cases range from a patient below 10 to one in his 60s.
“This is just another reminder that this virus is in our neighborhood and with more testing being done, the more likely it will be to get another positive case. With this knowledge, citizens are urged to continue to stay at home, social distance and routinely wash hands and wear face covering, cover/block your sneeze and coughs,” Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra wrote in a news release. “DSHS has set up a hotline if you have any questions about COVID-19 and are looking for information on how to get tested at (956) 421-5505.”
As cases and hospitalizations mount, Vazquez, the Starr County Health Authority, warned that health officials might soon need to begin rationing resources.
“We are at the point where decisions are going to have to be made in the future about rationing resources,” he said. “That terrible decision that sometimes a health professional has to make about who gets a necessary piece of equipment, or a resource, and who doesn’t get it.”
Those decisions, he said, would be based on the likelihood that a patient will survive or based on age or comorbidities.
“We do not want to have to take those decisions ever,” Vazquez said. “However, we are reaching the point where that may be necessary.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with case numbers.