Data shows safety orders slowed COVID-19 spread in Lower Valley

Customers shop at El Conquistador in downtown Brownsville wearing their face mask.

Data collected by the city of Brownsville and local hospitals paint a clear picture of how shelter in place, mask mandates, social distancing and hand hygiene guidelines helped keep the spread of COVID-19 under control as the virus swept across the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The numbers mirror clearly the reported surges in cases and deaths that placed real strain on Brownsville’s EMS and hospital systems in mid-June through the end of July.

According to Leslie Bingham, CEO at Valley Baptist Medical Center, data from the hospital shows that the total number of emergency room patients at VBMC-Brownsville from August of this year dropped by 49% in comparison to August 2019.

Interestingly, the decrease in the number of ER patients arriving by ambulance to VBMC in August 2020 compared to August 2019 was 36%, which Bingham said suggests that non-COVID patients who would normally seek care in the ER stayed away due to fear of exposure to the virus.

“The fact that the decrease in EMS transported ER patients is not as low as the decrease in total likely speaks to the fact that EMS typically transports very ill patients, who likely urgently needed care and could not elect just to stay home,” Bingham said.

This trend has continued through September, reflecting a drop in cases in August and then last month.

EMS calls in July of this year increased by 11% in comparison to those made in 2019, according to data from the city. March through August 2020 saw well over 14,000 calls, with the monthly total averaging 1,964 calls placed to 9-1-1 per month.

In March, cases spiked and uncertainty about the virus, its onset, and symptoms caused more people to visit local hospitals. Data showed a slight increase to 2,059 calls — just 13 more than the month before.

By April, calls dropped to 1,432, which officials attribute to shelter in place, curfews, and mask and social distancing regulations as well as requests by officials through the media to avoid the hospital unless absolutely necessary.

The following month, the number rose to 1,721 after statewide re-opening began. Then, in June, emergency calls spiked again at 1,983. And from June to July, those calls surged to 2,420.

Officials attribute the surge in part to Memorial Day celebrations but suggest it also happened because more people ventured into public spaces. Directives from state leadership on mask wearing and the safety risks posed by ignoring health recommendations remained ambiguous.

“We started to trend upward in mid-June, almost two weeks after Memorial Day, and we were not able to recover from that until last month,” said Mayor Trey Mendez, citing data collected by the city on case totals.

“July was the worse month by far. And then August the trend started going down, and then September was close to April,” said Mendez.

In July, hospitals, ICUs, and ERs were full and had several hour wait times and as a result, there were people dying at home, the mayor said.

“EMS, Fire Department, and even PD was responding to a lot of calls of individuals who had died at home. It got to the point where it was around three to four a day during July,” said Mendez.

Brownsville Fire Chief Jarrett Sheldon confirmed that July 3 was the busiest day for EMS in 2020 to date. The trend lines up with reports of case surges and ambulance wait times beginning in late June.

“We responded to about 190 EMS calls that day,” Sheldon said .

That total is in comparison to the yearly average of 70 to 80 calls per day. In order to keep the EMS system functioning, first responders set up what Sheldon described as a “field triage” system to ensure patients were being evaluated and getting the right care at the right time.

A state strike force and FEMA stepped in to provide additional ambulances as cases surged across Texas and the Rio Grande Valley became a “hotspot within a hotspot.” The fire department transported paramedics in its trucks and other vehicles when ambulances were not absolutely necessary.

Referred to by the fire department as its “Scout Program,” the tiered response system placed a paramedic in the dispatch system to get people proper medical information. Callers would either be referred to their doctor or dispatch would send a paramedic to the house.

“If they didn’t seem critical we would send the paramedic to their house to evaluate them, help them call their doctor, and possibly transport them to the hospital. If they were critical we got them right in an ambulance,” Sheldon explained.

In July, Sheldon said calls were 80% COVID-related. By August that statistic dropped to 20%, then down to 10% this month. The chief said this exemplifies how effective preventative measures have been when taken seriously.

Last week, all but one state strike force team left the Valley. Five ambulances remain in Cameron County specifically to transport lower acuity patients to the recovery center in Harlingen.

Ambulance requests began to drop steadily in August, with case numbers going down and hospitals freeing up beds, but that doesn’t mean the Valley has made it past the pandemic. Cases continue to surge this week in Texas, in cities across the county and across the world.

“Don’t let your guard down,” said Brownsville Public Health Director Art Rodriguez. “You need to be on high alert because that is what has gotten us through safely so far — we need to be on the cutting edge of what are the best practices.”

Flu season is here, and Rodriguez urged residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible. There have already been cases in Brownsville where patients are hospitalized with the flu and test positive for COVID, too.

A flu shot will protect you against one virus so that your body is not fighting two infections simultaneously, and Rodriguez said that high-risk groups should look into getting the flu shot immediately.

The city is paying close attention as flu season continues.

“We haven’t seen any tragic cases where individuals have both yet, but we anticipate that there will be based on what it can do to the body,” Mendez said.

Sheldon is optimistic that the situation is under control for the time being. Brownsville-based dispatchers are receiving 50 to 60 calls a day, which is lower than average and suggests residents are still avoiding the hospitals.

However, this has raised concern at local emergency rooms. At Valley Regional Medical Center, CEO Lauren Davis urged patients not to delay care out of fear.

“Don’t delay your care. Don’t not come to the facility if it’s an emergent need,” she said.

“We are safe, we have screening processes in place. We are not letting visitors in right now, but under certain circumstances we are. Those people are screened, our employees are screened on a daily basis, they’re asked questions and are taking temperatures.”

Davis emphasized continuing to social distance, wear a mask, and to wash hands frequently but said the hospital is a safe place to be.

“We have learned a lot through this pandemic and have the precautions in place that we feel makes it safe for non-COVID patients to come into the hospital,” she said.