Fighting COVID: Cornyn pushes for funding in Valley

After the round table briefing with local elected officials and health care workers on efforts in place locally to combat COVID-19, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) held a press conference in the UTRGV Clinical Education Building auditorium. By Maricela Rodriguez, Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN — Sen. John Cornyn Tuesday told Rio Grande Valley leaders he would work to continue pushing for federal dollars to fund the area’s health care and education systems until the coronavirus crisis becomes “manageable.”

During an hour-long roundtable discussion, the Valley’s county judges and hospital administrators called on Texas’ senior Republican senator to push for continued funding under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES.

So far, he’s helped pump $97 million into the Valley’s health care system and millions more into areas such as education, Cornyn said.

“I’m proud to be part of the federal response,” Cornyn said at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Clinical Education Building, referring to CARES funding. “You’re not fighting this fight alone. Together we will get through this. We would like to make sure (funds) are not withdrawn until we’re in a manageable situation.”

Hospitals transferring few patients to McAllen COVID-19 recovery center

During a short press conference, a reporter told Cornyn the state’s projects to convert the McAllen Convention Center and Harlingen’s Casa de Amistad into Texas’ biggest COVID-19 recovery centers had led to few hospital transfers.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans to use CARES funding to convert
the two convention centers into COVID-19 recovery units to help free beds in hospitals that had reached capacity amid a surge of new cases.

Now, as the number of new COVID-19 patients has begun dropping, hospitals have been able to free more beds for victims of trauma and other critical patients.

On Tuesday morning, the McAllen facility, equipped with as many as 250 beds, was treating six recovered COVID-19 patients.

Since the recovery center opened Aug. 4, Hidalgo County hospitals have transferred eight patients to the facility.

After the round table briefing with local elected officials and health care workers on efforts in place locally to combat COVID-19, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) held a press conference in the UTRGV Clinical Education Building auditorium. By Maricela Rodriguez, Valley Morning Star

In Harlingen, the recovery center at Casa de Amistad, equipped with as many as 96 beds, hadn’t opened as of Tuesday morning, as local officials waited to finalize documents related to hospital licensing.

In response to the few patients hospitals have transferred to the McAllen facility, Cornyn said the recovery center would stand ready in case of a spike in new COVID-19 patients.

“The big concern was we were overwhelming the hospitals,” Cornyn told reporters. “The fact that they are not widely needed is good but they’re there in case they are needed.”

Cornyn also told reporters he would continue to push for funding to connect more households to the internet as Texas schools prepare to open with on-line learning.

“Our children have to work online,” he said, adding he’s pushed for billions of dollars to gap the so-called digital divide. “Access to broadband is absolutely essential.”

Valley leaders call for more CARES funding

During the roundtable discussion, Valley leaders pointed to key issues such as lack of medical resources to treat an underserved population in one of the poorest areas in the United States.

In the last month, Cameron County’s number of positive COVID-19 cases surged, County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. told Cornyn.

While the county’s total case count stood at 3,496 on July 10, he said, cases soared to 16,906 on Monday.

During that period, the county’s death toll climbed from 77 to 378, he said.

“It’s terrible,” Treviño said. “It dictates a personal failure for everyone who lost their life.”

Now, he’s concerned lower numbers of new cases could lead residents to let down their guard in the fight against the virus.

“I don’t want the public to think we’re past this pandemic,” Treviño said.

So far, he said, the CARES Act has pumped $5.5 million into the county.

But the county needs more money to continue dealing with the crisis, Treviño said.

“We are in dire need,” he said.

Low Census response amid pandemic

Treviño also called for an extension in the Census deadline, warning Cameron County, with a current 48-percent response rate, stands to lose Congressional representation and federal funding.

This year, he warned, the area’s population count could be lower than the previous Census count.

“The Valley has been undercounted for decades,” Treviño said.

Call for early COVID-19 treatment

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez called for better access to medical care to help stem his county’s high numbers of cases.

“It’s a disaster,” he told Cornyn. “We cannot continue in this path.”

Cortez called for quicker test results and in-home testing, while pushing for isolation of COVID-19-infected residents living in multi-generational households.

“We have so many people in poverty, so many people without medical care, they wait too long to be treated,” he said. “We have to do something about getting patients to the hospital for treatment earlier.”

Like Cortez, Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra warned school’s classroom instruction could spike cases.

“Face-to-face instruction would be a disaster for us,” Guerra told Cornyn, adding school districts are Willacy County’s biggest employers.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley hosted Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) yesterday at the Harlingen UTRGV Clinical Education Building auditorium for a round table briefing with local elected officials and health care workers on efforts in place locally to combat COVID-19. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

Decline in hospitalizations

At Valley hospitals, the hospitalization of COVID-19 patients has been dropping in recent weeks, administrators said.

At Valley Baptist Medical Health System, Manny Vela, the chief executive officer, warned the crisis would continue “to the end of the year.”

“We were in a heck of a fight,” Vela told Cornyn. “What we’re seeing is somewhat of a decline. We’re far, far away from resolving this issue.”

“The majority of our population is adhering to best practices and that’s why we’re seeing (declining case numbers),” he said, referring to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines set to curb the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, state medical strike teams have helped boost staffing levels, he said.

Vela called on Cornyn to “continue to staff support for duration” of the crisis.

“This COVID-19 is a marathon,” Cris Rivera, chief executive officer at Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen, told Cornyn. “We’ve discussed how to live in a COVID world. We’ve got to learn to mitigate and manage it. But we’re saving lives. We just need a little bit of help — whatever you could do from a financial point of view.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com