Hard hit: County infection rate exceeds NYC

Downtown Brownsville shoppers wear their face mask as they walk along Elizabeth Street Friday afternoon. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

A Friday press conference held by Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. revealed alarming statistics combined with a small measure of good news.

Illustrating just how devastating COVID-19 has been to residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Health Authority Dr. James Castillo noted that in March when the virus was ravaging New York City, about 3 percent of the city’s population became infected. It’s worse here, he said.

“As of right now here in Cameron County over 4 percent of the population have been confirmed by PCR tests of having been infected with COVID-19,” Castillo said. “New York and those worst hit counties had about 3,000 cases per 100,000 residents. Here in Cameron County we now have over 4,100 confirmed infections per 100,000. That’s 4 percent of the population. Everything that we’ve seen, to put it in a national perspective, is we’ve gotten hit harder than New York. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s why we’ve had to take such drastic actions.”

He was referring the county orders mandating facial coverings, curfew, social distancing, sheltering in place, limiting the size of gatherings, closing beach access points and so on to stem the spread of the virus, which has infected 17,618 and killed 407 Cameron County residents at last count.

“In New York in the middle of that storm that they were hit with they shut down cold,” Castillo said. “You saw photos of Manhattan. The streets were empty. And here we are in the middle of this pandemic that’s affecting our community and we’re not shut down. We’re open, and that’s why you see us so concerned for our residents here. Everybody now knows somebody who’s lost a loved one. It didn’t have to be that way. Other countries showed us it didn’t have to be that way.”

Next came the good news: The number of new virus cases being reported is down to about 300 per day, down from 700 to 800 or even 1,000 per day in recent weeks, he said.

Cameron County Health Authority Doctor James Castillo answers questions during a Cameron County press conference Friday. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“We have the potential still for a lot more suffering, but I’m seeing a real encouraging trend here, that our number of cases per day is trending down,” Castillo said.

He said he thinks the decline is because most residents have been heeding the county’s orders on facial coverings, social distancing and the rest.

“We’re still at a tremendous rate of infection, but it’s headed in the right direction and we need to see that trend continuing,” he said.

Castillo said things won’t even begin to approach normal again until new case reports are consistently lower than 50 per day. At that rate, the county should be able to test, trace and quarantine to prevent further spread, he said.

“We have Labor Day holiday coming up and we have not had the best track record with holidays,” Castillo said. “I would hope that this trend continues, that everybody keeps following all the guidelines, even though I know it’s fatiguing. We’re getting real tired of this, but if we keep this up hopefully we won’t have another wave of this, because we’re just starting to see maybe the end of the first wave.”

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. answers questions during a press conference Friday providing an update on the fight against COVID-19. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

County public health Administrator Esmeralda Guajardo said the pandemic “still needs to be taken very seriously” and that now is no time to become complacent, while imploring members of the public who have symptoms to get tested so her department can keep tabs on the virus and try to prevent further spread. She said residents who have recovered from COVID-19 need to call the health department so the numbers are accurate.

Guajardo said the department has cut through a massive and is now reporting new virus cases as it receives the lab results.

“Our data is accurate as can be,” she said. “Every number that’s out there we can actually vouch for.”

Treviño said the county’s hospitals are “in a little bit better shape” in terms of patient load, with 84 percent of COVID-19-dedicated non-ICU beds occupied and about 97 percent of COVID-19-dedicated ICU beds occupied.

“It’s still way too high but certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, at 115 and 130 (percent) respectively,” he said.

Treviño said he’s signed an extension of the county’s emergency management order mandating facial coverings, shelter in place, curfew and so on, this time through Sept. 9. He noted that a petition is circulating requesting that county beach access be reopened, based on the argument that the closures are forcing more people to use South Padre Island city access points, which increases crowd density at those points.

A woman shops for artificial flowers Friday afternoon along Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“I guess in reality that is accurate, but the truth is … right now is not the time to be making plans to go out to the beach,” Trevino said.

To underline the seriousness of the situation, he pointed out that Cameron County has roughly half the deaths of Bexar County, which has nearly five times the population of Cameron County. Treviño said the decisions he makes regarding the pandemic are based on the advice of health professionals and are aimed at reducing the magnitude of “death and misery” in the county.

“The easiest thing to do would be just to let it all open and let everybody do what they want to do,” he said. “That’s what a lot of people want me to do, but that’s not what the great majority of people want me to do.”