As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the Rio Grande Valley, city leaders in Donna called an emergency council meeting Friday to address growing concerns there, including the availability of test kits and medical equipment for people struggling to recover from the disease at home.

To that end, the Donna City Council approved the purchase of 5,000 COVID-19 test kits, as well as $20,000 worth of ventilator equipment. The council approved the two purchases unanimously in a meeting that lasted less than 2.5 minutes via teleconference.

“Just to clarify that both of these issues are time-sensitive purchases that are in high demand,” Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena said during the meeting. “If we don’t act on them now, we risk them not being available.”

Speaking after the meeting, Mayor Rick Morales said the 5,000 test kits is part of an effort to provide testing free of charge to Donna residents via a partnership with local clinics and doctors.

“The reason why we’ve done that is because we don’t want it to spread in Donna. We’ve had quite a few deaths. People have passed away in their homes without getting the proper medical treatment,” Morales said.

“And we think that, under the advisement of our medical professionals in the city of Donna, they recommended we do this. So that’s what we’re doing as a way to combat this COVID-19,” the mayor said.

As of Friday, there were a reported a total of 622 cases in Donna, according to the city’s official Facebook page.

Morales said the city will be making an announcement soon about which medical offices are participating in the testing effort, and reminded residents that though the test is free, they will still need to pay doctor’s fees associated with their visit.

Though there are no hospital facilities located within Donna, Morales said the purchase of $20,000 worth of ventilator equipment will be used to help treat patients who have been discharged from a hospital but still require significant recovery at home.

“If they went to the hospital, they were sent home, they didn’t have any money to buy a ventilator, the doctors are going to be providing those patients who qualify for a ventilator,” Morales said.

“We’re quickly running out of ventilators, (from) what we’re being told. So, we want to be sure that we’re able to provide something to help to the most needy in our community,” he said.

The mayor was uncertain about the specifics of the ventilator equipment, or how much of that equipment could be purchased for $20,000.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on medical resources throughout the region, however, including the availability of oxygen tanks and supplies for patients who are no longer critical ill enough to require hospitalization, but who still needs oxygen treatment while they continue to recover at home.

The test kits will be PCR nasal swab tests, the mayor said, and will cost the city $38 per kit. At 5,000 kits, the cost comes to $190,000 — and the total with the ventilators comes to $210,000.

During the meeting, the city manager indicated the city hopes to be reimbursed for the expenditures via COVID-19 relief funds from Hidalgo County, which is responsible for administering federal coronavirus relief monies.

“Once you purchase all these items, you submit the invoice to the county and then we get reimbursed for this?” one of the councilmen asked.

“That is the plan,” Yerena said. “… The check will go out today.”

Morales said Donna will also be making a request to the Texas Department of Emergency Management for the deployment of a “strike team” of ambulances and medical personnel. Late last month, TDEM deployed 10 such strike teams to various cities throughout the Valley, including neighboring Weslaco.

“We’re not just looking at the Donna city limits, we’re looking at the whole ETJ — the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Donna,” which includes approximately 100,000 people, Morales said.

The mayor stressed how devastating COVID-19 has been in his city, saying he has known several people who have died from the disease, including people as young as their 30s. As the pandemic worsens, the mayor said he has turned to constant prayer for his community.

“The whole world’s at a standstill right now, not just Donna, you know? Everybody, all over. I pray that we come up with a vaccine soon and I lift up my little town and everybody in it,” Morales said.

He pleaded with Donna residents to heed public health entreaties to stay home unless absolutely necessary. And to wear masks and practice good hygiene and social distancing when out in public.

Increasingly, first responders are finding people who have died in their homes, without the benefit of medical care. Morales gets a phone call every time that happens, he said.

“After a while, it just takes a toll on you because you want to do everything you can to protect your city and your people and you feel helpless,” he said.  “It’s an invisible enemy coming in and it’s affecting your community.

“The only thing I know to do is pray.”