BY NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE AND BERENICE GARCIA | STAFF WRITERS
Hidalgo County will receive additional help from the U.S. Army and Texas Department of Emergency Management after a global humanitarian organization announced Wednesday it would not open a field hospital in McAllen despite a tour of the area Monday.
The county confirmed another 35 people dead from COVID-19 complications Wednesday, along with another 651 new positive cases.
The additional resources come at a time when Hidalgo County is seeing a record number of deaths that continue to climb each day. Health authorities reported 35 deaths and 651 additional COVID-19 cases Wednesday night.
The new cases bring the total in the county to 9,244.
“My most sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of these 35 people. We are doing the best that we can to curb the spread of this virus but we still need your help. It is important that we maintain our distance and avoid all other social gatherings outside of our household,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez wrote in a release. “We are expecting higher numbers tomorrow as the federal test results come in.”
The county reports that 867 people are hospitalized with complications from the coronavirus, 221 of them in intensive care units.
The county also announced that 776 people had been released from isolation Wednesday, bringing the total number of remaining active cases to 4,871.
Cameron County confirmed an additional 315 cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, bringing the total there to 4,905.
Starr County also reported 55 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and another 47 on Wednesday, bringing the total there to 1,215. Of those, 386 are listed as recoveries, 824 are recovering under medical care, five are recorded as deaths and 29 are listed as deaths pending state confirmation.
In Willacy County, 54 new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed Wednesday, bringing the total there to 410.
In total, the Rio Grande Valley reported 1,067 new cases Wednesday, and according to Cortez, the local healthcare system is overburdened and needs support and more resources from Gov. Greg Abbott and the state.
“He opened up Texas so, you know, here’s what he got,” Cortez said. “To me, he’s going to have to do something and… if I were in his shoes, drastic measures take drastic actions. I think we need to shut it down for two weeks, take control of the situation. Yes there’s going to be financial consequences and other consequences to it, but how can you let this go?”
Cortez’s comments followed news that Samaritan’s Purse was not bringing one of its two field hospitals to South Texas — a decision that was made after a team from the global organization met with health officials, hospital administrators and other key stakeholders on Monday at the request of U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.
“I am disappointed that Samaritan’s Purse has declined to establish a field hospital, but I thank Edward Graham, Dr. Tenpenny and the other staff of Samaritan’s Purse for visiting and assessing the situation in the Rio Grande Valley on such short notice,” Gonzalez said in a statement Wednesday.
The congressman invited the Christian-based organization to the area after hospital administrators asked the county for financial help because the organization previously set up field hospitals in Italy and New York to treat COVID-19 patients.
“After assessing the situation there with regard to our resources and logistics considerations, we will not be responding in McAllen,” Melissa Strickland, a senior communications director at Samaritan’s Purse said Wednesday via text message. “Our prayers are with all of you in this time of challenges and loss.”
When asked for the team’s reasoning behind the decision, Strickland said, “That’s always difficult. As you might imagine, putting together this kind of complex response requires several pieces to lock together. As you heard in (Cortez’) press conference, we knew there would be some challenges before we came to Texas for the on-the-ground assessment, but our heart was to see if there was any way at all to work around those things in response to the needs of your community. In the end, unfortunately, we just couldn’t get all of the pieces in place.”
On Monday, officials cited several challenges with the potential operation, including the hot temperatures, lack of oxygen supply and possible hurricane threats.
Gonzalez and Cortez, however, noted that a majority of local hospitals are at capacity or nearing it.
“People in South Texas are dying and more needs to be done,” Gonzalez said, asking elected officials on both sides “to put aside their partisan blinders and work on behalf of those who are suffering and need help.
“I implore the Governor to direct more resources to South Texas.”
Cortez later announced the state will send 80 additional medical personnel and funeral directors to assist local hospitals and manage the surge of deaths.
The county is also receiving two large refrigerated trailers, 55 feet in size, to accommodate 50 bodies. One will be stationed in Weslaco, and the other one in Mission. Those are in addition to the two trailers the county owns, which are already stationed outside the county’s forensic center.
Cortez also said a funeral home with a capacity for seven bodies is currently trying to manage 18.
Patient transportation is another issue.
Ambulances are being overwhelmed with calls for service while they often have to wait outside hospitals with patients until a bed becomes available.
Cortez said the county is working with a lower layer of ambulances which normally transport patients to doctors’ offices.
We’re working very closely, trying to work with the cities, to try to get some of those lower level ambulance companies the ability to provide services to the hospitals so we can increase capacity,” Cortez said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday the U.S. Army is sending a medical task force to the Rio Grande Valley to provide much-needed medical personnel to local hospitals, while the Texas Department of Emergency Management is scouting locations, including hotels, to create additional hospital capacity.
“I am grateful to our federal partners at the Department of Defense for sending these teams to the Valley and working within the community to protect public health and combat this virus,” Abbott said in a news release announcing the additional resources. “These teams, coupled with our newly established partnership with local hotels, will aid in our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure adequate hospital capacity in the Valley.”
Still, the help might not be enough to properly care for the sick, Gonzalez said.
“Despite the recent arrival of some medical staff, we still lack critical medical personnel, ventilators, heart monitors, oxygen supply and other necessary resources. Without them, Texans will die,” Gonzalez said. “Our leaders at the state and federal level, House and Senate, need to speak less, quit dragging their feet and take more concrete action.’