Virus patients are sicker; Chronic conditions exacting a heavy price in RGV

Brownsville Fire Department EMS Paramedics arrive in their ambulance unit as they roll in a patient on a stretcher at Valley Baptist Medical Center Brownsville Tuesday afternoon. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Reporting on a Tuesday teleconference with the Brownsville City Commission and Brownsville hospital CEO’s Leslie Bingham and Art Garza, City Commissioner Dr. Rose M.Z. Gowen had some bad news and some less bad news.

According to Bingham and Garza, of Valley Baptist Medical Center and Valley Regional Medical Center, respectively, the word from the visiting doctors, nurses and other hospital relief workers sent in from other states to help is that Brownsville’s COVID-19 hospitals patients tend to be sicker than the COVID-19 patients they’ve encountered elsewhere, said Gowen, who is also a medical doctor.

“Those folks have worked in other hot spots around the country as the virus progressed, and they’re telling (hospital administrators) that our patients are much more acutely ill than in many other parts of the country,” Gowen said. “That’s of course very frightening. You hate to be unique for that reason.”

Also taking part in the bi-weekly teleconference with the city commission are Belinda Reininger, regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, and the school’s founding, former regional dean, Dr. Joseph McCormick, who warned months ago that the virus could be devastating in the Rio Grande Valley due to the high percentage of the population with chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes that make becoming very ill or dying from COVID-19 more likely.

And it’s not just older people, he said at the end of March.

“There are plenty of younger people who have underlying conditions,” McCormick said. “We’ve had a longstanding research program that has sampled about 5,000 in (Cameron County) over the last decade and a half to look at chronic disease. Seventeen percent of young men from 18 to 35 already have diabetes. That’s published. I think this is really important to emphasize, that people below the age of 50, there is plenty of underlying condition out there.”

Twenty-eight percent of adults in the county are diabetic and 50 percent are obese, he said. Gowen said Bingham noted during the meeting that evidence is mounting that obesity, especially, puts people at risk of serious complications or death from the virus.

“We’ve seen it in the literature more and more … that obesity alone is emerging as a huge risk factor whether or not you have hypertension or diabetes,” Gowen said.

What it means is that rather than dying in 10 or 15 years from a chronic illness, “this could kill you next week,” she said.

Hospitals are still full of virus patients and many of them on ventilators, but the long lines of ambulances waiting for hours to offload patients at emergency rooms have abated, Gowen said.

“I think people are starting to listen and pay attention,” she said. “I hope so.”

sclark@!brownsvilleherald.com