Mulling lockdown: County and state considering drastic action

Signs posted along the frontage road inform passing cars about COVID-19 testing Monday available in the Brownsville Doctors Hospital parking lot. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevi ñ o Jr. said at a Monday press conference that he’s considering reimplementing a full shelter-in-place lock-down in response to quickly growing number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths regardless of whether it’s OK with the governor’s office.

The state began reopening its economy May 1 by order of Gov. Greg Abbott. Back then, Cameron County had less than 400 confirmed cases and 14 deaths from the virus, while the state had a little over 26,000 cases and less than 700 deaths. As of July 13, the county had 3,854 total cases and 79 deaths, and the state 258,658 cases and 3,192 deaths.

Expressing frustration and exasperation with the county’s growing incidence of infection and death and the unprecedented strained on the county’s four regional hospitals, Trevi ñ o said the situation is due to a premature reopening on the part of the state and the fact that too many people still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. He said the biggest spike in new cases is in the 20-40 age group.

“Put yourself in the shoes of those doctors and those nurses and those health care professionals that are fighting 24/7 to save the lives of individuals who have been exposed and are suffering from this virus of all ages,” Trevino said.

The judge said the county has reported 974 more cases and 11 more deaths since his previous press conference, on July 7, and confirmed that hospitals have had to bring in refrigerated morgue trucks due to the overload in moralities. Trevi ñ o said the county has requested more resources for hospitals to help deal with the deluge of COVID-19 cases, including a minimum 60-day extension of temporary hospital staffing provided by the state. The temporary staff, who came from around Texas and the nation, were supposed to leave yesterday(Sunday) but are staying another two weeks, he said.

“We’ve also requested that the Texas State Guard assist in manning triage tents that have been placed in the parking lots of each of our hospitals to ease the pressure on our emergency rooms,” Trevi ñ o said. “This will allow our (emergency medical services) to get back in service faster and will address the serious situation of patients waiting in the ambulance for hours.”

The county has also requested more testing sites, though delays in getting test results in a timely fashion are a problem in the county and across the nation, he said. Either people are missing a week or more of work waiting for a result that could come back negative, or are continuing with their usual routine and potentially infecting others, if the results ultimately come back positive, Trevino said.

“ If you take a test on a Monday and you don’t get the results until the following Monday or Wednesday or Thursday, it’s defeating the purpose of the testing,” he said.

Trevi ñ o said he’s been talking with the superintendents of all the county’s school districts and is in the process of drafting a letter to the governor asking that the districts be given the authority over how and when to reopen their own schools. Abbott has declared that students will return to school this fall. Trevi ñ o and the other three county judges in the Rio Grande Valley have also sent the governor’s office a letter requesting that emergency management decisions related to the pandemic be returned to local jurisdictions.

With his order announcing the state’s reopening, Abbott stripped local governments of the authority to issue mask mandates and other orders meant to stem the spread of the virus. After resisting calls from local leaders for months to impose a statewide mask mandate, Abbott finally relented early this month.

“ The governor even in the last few days has indicated that if the numbers don’t change he’s going to potentially call for a close-down again,” Trevi ñ o said. “Nobody wants that, and yet you’ve got individuals that are putting everybody at risk. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: What am I doing? Am I taking this seriously? Or am I just concerned about what I want?”

Trevino expressed impatience with those who aren’t taking the public health crisis seriously, whether it be young people who think it doesn’t concern them, or conspiracy theorists who believe it’s a hoax or government plot to control the citizenry.

“ If we refuse to follow the science and the data, we only have ourselves to blame,” he said. “This is no longer a mitigation issue, preventing it from getting worse. We’re past that. I’m not going to say it’s out of control, but now it’s suppressing.”

Trevi ñ o said the county’s public health experts predict the number of new cases each week to remain high, though they’re hoping that enough people are adhering to mask wearing, social distancing, and limited travel mandates that the number of cases will eventually begin to come down.

“ Hopefully by then some of this will have an effect,” he said. “It should. It’s worked in other parts of the country. It’s worked in other parts of the world.”

As far as ordering a countywide lock-down of the type that kept virus numbers low in the spring, with or without the governor’s permission, Trevi ñ o said it’s definitely on the table.

“ I am certainly considering it, because I think the danger and the risk to our community calls for that,” he said. “We’re talking with legal, and we’re weighing our options, and it may end up becoming a legal dispute between us and the state. I don’t think it should be, and we don’t want to hurt the economy anymore.”

Trevi ñ o said he doesn’t agree with those who prioritize the health of the economy over the health of the populace, since economies can be resurrected but human lives can’t.

“ We’ll get the economy,” he said. “It’ll come back, and it can come back quickly if everybody does their part.”