Starr County health authority resigns amid frustrations with officials

Dr. Jose Vazquez poses at The Monitor on Friday, May 1, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

After playing an instrumental role in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in Starr County at the outset of the pandemic, Dr. Jose Vazquez, the county’s health authority, resigned from his position Monday morning, effective immediately.

Vazquez’s abrupt resignation comes the morning that the Starr County Commissioners Court discussed a possible contract for Vazquez that would have increased his compensation from $500 to $10,000 per month, or $120,000 annually.

“I had a disagreement with the way the commissioners court wanted to handle some situations,” Vazquez said.

He said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera approached him with the idea granting him a contract with a salary. However, that didn’t garner enough support from the other commissioners.

“It was never a matter of making a salary,” Vazquez said. “I never asked to be paid a salary or anything but … the number of hours I was putting into this, it was enormous.”

The doctor served in the role for more than 10 years but like with many health officials nationwide, his responsibilities grew beyond what anyone anticipated when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The Associated Press on Monday reported that Vazquez is one of dozens of public health officials from throughout the U.S. who have either resigned or were fired during the COVID-19 outbreak, attributing causes to burnout, politics or threats of violence against them.

In Starr County, Vazquez was responsible for much in his position as health authority.

He spearheaded and advised on the county’s efforts to mitigate the virus’ spread and has been tasked with staying abreast of how the disease is affecting the community.

He was also key in acquiring the county’s drive-thru testing site in March which, at the time, was the Rio Grande Valley’s only COVID-19 testing site available to the public.

While serving as the health authority, Vazquez also juggled managing his own practice and his duties as the board president for Starr County Memorial Hospital.

“The commissioners court believed that somebody should continue doing that job, basically, for free,” Vazquez said of Monday’s discussion of a possible contract. “They did not appreciate the job that I had done up to now; they thought that somebody else could continue doing it for free.”

“I put the job immediately in their hands,” he said, “so now they will have to find a new health authority and to take care of the situation.”

Vera said he believed the proposal to pay Vazquez $10,000 per month was very reasonable and pointed to the work that Vazquez put into the role, especially dealing with the COVID-19 situation.

“He was constantly in communication with me — evenings, night, Saturday, Sunday, holidays — he was constantly working on it,” Vera said.

“Like I explained to the court before we got started, any professional that helps the county or that we hire — whether it’s an attorney, an engineer, a consultant, an accountant — any professional that works for us, they get paid and they get paid very well so I felt Dr. Vazquez was no exception,” Vera said. “The court didn’t see my way and they decided that they did not want to pay.”

Vera said he mentioned to the commissioners that taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for Vazquez’s salary as it would be paid through funds the county received from the federal coronavirus relief bill.

“It all comes from the CARES Act and we have monies that are reimbursable, that — my understanding is — we need to spend by the end of the year,” he said.

“This contract was not a perpetual contract,” Vera added. “It had a 30-day termination clause, on both sides. If the doctor felt that he didn’t want to do this anymore or if the county felt that we didn’t need him anymore, we’d have canceled the contract, just give him a 30-day (notice).

“But it was not going to cost the taxpayers a single cent.”

County Commissioner Eloy Garza said his opposition to a contract for Vazquez was because he believed it was too much money and another local physician, Dr. Antonio Falcon, was willing to take the job for free.

“I just got off the phone with him, he’s ready to take over,” Garza said, adding that he expects the commissioners court to officially appoint him to the role on Friday.

During a Facebook Live on Monday afternoon, Vazquez challenged Garza for voting to deny the contract and stating that he had already spoken to Falcon about taking over the position for free.

“I never asked for this compensation,” Vazquez reiterated Monday. “It was brought to commissioners court today with the belief that my job was going to be rewarded in a fair manner, like any other professional services is being paid in the county.”

Instead, he said, Garza insulted him.

“Time and events will judge you in your position,” Vazquez said, before challenging the other commissioners to donate their salaries to COVID-19 expenses.

To Vera, he expressed only praise and gratitude.

“You are a tremendous leader and a role model,” Vazquez said. “You will have my respect and admiration.”

He also offered his support to his successor and assured the public that he would continue to offer his services.

“I will not stop this fight,” Vazquez said. “I will continue all my efforts to help and guide you in your needs.”