Children across the Rio Grande Valley are back at school, figuratively speaking, to start or resume their education within the limitations of a global pandemic. On top of students’ ongoing education, Starr County officials hope to teach kids about the dangers of COVID-19 and the recommended precautions in hopes of spreading that information to the rest of the community.
Officials have formed a committee as part of that initiative called “Starr County Strong: A Roadmap for a Healthy Community.”
“From the very beginning we envisioned a county-wide movement that includes everyone in our county working together,” said Dr. Adrian Guerra, the committee chairman.
During a news conference Tuesday morning, Guerra said the Starr County local health authority, Dr. Antonio Falcon, asked him to form the committee and they’ve already invited all the school districts in the county, county leadership, and officials from Starr County Memorial Hospital to participate in the effort.
“We all truly believe that by working together we can develop a healthy community here in Starr County that will help us not only combat COVID but also other health issues,” Guerra said.
The first phase of the project focused on branding. The committee already came up with a slogan, will be rolling out a jingle and will debut a mascot in the coming days.
The second phase, Guerra said, will involve providing schools with audio, visual and curriculum materials that teachers can incorporate into their lessons.
“We want to ensure that this new county health initiative goes beyond COVID and into overall county health,” Guerra said. “Our main goal is to keep this a simple and easily recognizable message that can be carried home by our school-age children.”
When it comes to a literal return to schools, Falcon said he wanted to wait and see how COVID-19 is affecting the community in the next couple of weeks before weighing in.
“I’m very concerned of a second wave,” Falcon said, “and I don’t know that that would happen, and I don’t think anybody really knows, but I do know that our healthcare providers in the community were exhausted.”
The upcoming Labor Day weekend, which begins this Friday, has come up when health officials talk about dates and events they’re keeping an eye on since long weekends typically signal gatherings among family and friends. Those, in turn, are believed to be one of the leading ways that the virus spreads within communities.
“We’re walking into an unknown situation when school starts,” Falcon said. “I think any decision needs to be made at the time when we have that data available and not trying to anticipate beforehand.”
July was one of the worst in the Valley regarding the pandemic as hospitals found themselves at capacity and officials at Starr County Memorial Hospital, in particular, struggled to find adequate care for their patients.
But on Tuesday, CEO and Administrator Thalia H. Muñoz said the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital was the lowest it had been in several days.
That morning, Muñoz reported, the hospital had only seven patients in their COVID-19 unit, all on CPAP machines and high-volume oxygen but none on ventilators.
In their emergency room, there were three possible COVID-19 patients pending investigation.
“That’s the lowest number we’ve had in many, many, many, many days,” Muñoz said. “There was a time there where we had a designated 28 beds and all 28 beds were full so we were having to transfer patients out and, unfortunately, out of the region because every single hospital was the same as us — completely full.”
At the height of surge in cases here, the U.S. Department of Defense deployed two U.S. Navy Rural Rapid Response Teams to Starr County Memorial Hospital.
Those teams are set to leave on Sept. 6, but county leaders are expected to official request that the additional staff stay in Starr through the end of the month in case hospitalizations spike again.
“Right now, the situation has eased off quite a bit and we’re very, very happy about that,” Muñoz said.