The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Cameron County has fallen to around 37 a day and hospitals aren’t nearly as full of virus patients as they were in July and August, though that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.
That’s according to Cameron County Public Health Authority Dr. James Castillo, speaking at a Friday press conference.
While hospitals are in better shape, county residents are still being hospitalized with COVID every day and more than 100 people are still in the hospital with the virus countywide, he said.
“Some people are still getting sick enough to be put on ventilators — definitely not at the same rate we were seeing a few months ago,” Castillo said.
Depending on the hospital, between 15 and 20 percent of patients are still hospitalized for COVID-related illness in the county, he said.
“As a region, South Texas, we’re doing better, but still as a county it’s definitely still significant,” Castillo said. “I think we’ve reached a plateau. … That means that the virus is not gone and if we relax our precautions at this point you can expect the virus to spring back. So people need to stay vigilant.”
He pointed out that most county residents have not contracted the virus, which means they still could. Castillo said it’s vital that everyone keep practicing social distancing, wearing facial coverings, avoiding crowds and washing hands frequently.
“We still need to be careful,” he said.
The latest numbers for the county as of Friday were 23,174 total reported positive cases, up from 22,339 on Sept. 18, said county Judge Eddie Trevino Jr.
“That’s an increase of 835 cases,” he said. “That’s good. We’ve been slowly dropping our daily average.”
At the same time, the goal should be zero new cases and no additional virus-related deaths, he said, noting that the county death toll had risen from 861 to 1,042 over the last three weeks. Trevino warned against becoming complacent in the face of such news.
“It should not be acceptable for those of us who live here in Cameron County,” he said. “We lost too many people. We’re the 12th largest (Texas) county and yet we had the fifth largest number of deaths.”
Trevino said the high incidence of residents with preexisting health conditions has led to the high death toll. Underlying health conditions created a “perfect storm” that has made many people sicker from the virus than they might have been otherwise, and caused more people to die from it, he said. Trevino said the county would be working on a countywide messaging program encouraging residents to pay more attention to their personal health.
Roughly 21,000 residents have recovered and been cleared for the disease and 39,829 have tested negative, he said. COVID-19 testing will take place today and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Wellness Gym at Sams Memorial Stadium, 708 Palm Blvd. No appointment is necessary but an ID is required.
Restaurants in the county will be allowed to increase their occupancy to 75 percent in light of the continuing decrease in cases, Trevino said, though he said he was not prepared at this point to allow bars to open, though Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order allows bars to open at 50 percent capacity.
Trevino said the county has been working with all the superintendents and administrators of public and private schools and the Texas Education Agency, and reminded schools that they’re required to report to the county health department any individual who tests positive for COVID-19 or any other communicable disease.
“Schools have been open now for in-person teaching for a few weeks,” he said. “So far so good. We’ve not had any major situations. but we will remind everybody to continue to wear your masks, socially distance, wash hands regularly and avoid the crowds. Those are the things that got us to this point.”
County public health Administration Esmeralda Guajardo said her department was planning to report 111 previously unreported virus cases on Friday, but that they were old cases revealed in a “data dump” by the state health department and that the public should not be alarmed. A spike in virus-related deaths last week was attributable to the same sudden release of information from the state, she said.
The issue is caused when hospitals and health care providers report positive cases or deaths to the state but not the county, Guajardo said, asking that providers and hospitals keep the county informed as well for the sake of accurate reporting. She also discussed the state’s plans, subject to change, for vaccine distribution.
“What we’re hearing is that there’s a possibility that a vaccine may be available by the end of the year,” Guajardo said. “It’s going to be a minimal amount of doses and it’s only for adults. It is not for children.”
A child vaccine will become available at some point later. Distribution of the adult vaccine at first will be done by health care providers, while the first doses will go to individuals considered essential workers and people with underlying health conditions, she said. The vaccine, when it does become available, will be delivered to providers at no cost, though providers must enroll to become vaccinators, Guajardo said. The website to enroll is enrolltexasiz.dhs.tx.gov.
“I encourage all medical providers to get on board and registered,” she said.
Finally, COVID-19 is taking a toll on Halloween this year. Trevino announced during the press conference that the county would not authorize usual events such as haunted houses or anything else that draws a large number of people together. Door-to-door trick-or-treating is also banned this year because of the potential for virus spread. However, the county is talking to county mayors and school leaders about the possibility of organized, drive-through Halloween candy handouts for kids, he said.
Trevino also implored families not to hold Halloween parties this year in order to keep cases low.
“We see what happens when people get together and don’t wear their masks” he said. “We’ve asked you to give up family events. We’re asking you to do it again for the safety of your family.”