Leaders urge Christmas caution; COVID cases still rising from Thanksgiving

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevi–o Jr. takes questions from reporters Wednesday morning during a press conference update on COVID-19. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The number of COVID-19 cases in Cameron County is steadily rising in the run-up to Christmas, a trend disturbingly similar to early summer just before the virus exploded in the Rio Grande Valley.

This was one takeaway from a press conference held by Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. on Wednesday. A spike in positive case numbers in recent weeks reflects a wave of new infections set off by families gathering for Thanksgiving, he said. Trevino and health and hospital officials taking part in the press conference implored the public to double down on precautions such as social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing and avoiding crowded places, and to forgo the usual Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, in order to avoid a deadly repeat of July and August.

As of Dec. 22 the county had 28,740 reported positive cases of COVID-19. County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo said that in general the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 has been ticking up since Thanksgiving, with about 167 people in the hospital due to the virus countywide and well over 400 throughout the Valley, he said.

With the arrival of winter, that’s bad news, Castillo said.

“The capacity of the hospitals in the wintertime in the Valley has always been an issue,” he said. “Hospitals have frequently reached capacity in wintertime, and now with COVID coming back, their capacity is again stretched.”

This time, though, it’s not just the Valley. Much of the state of Texas is getting hammered by the virus, which means outside assistance dealing with another surge here could be hard to come by since human resources are spread thin, Castillo said.

“I hope that we get help if we need it, but I don’t think we should rely on that,” he said.

A view of Valley Baptist Medical Center Emergency Room entrance in Brownsville as COVID-19 continues to spike across the nation and around the world. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Valley Baptist Health System President and CEO Manny Vela said 21 percent or more than 60 of the patients at Valley Baptist’s Brownsville and Harlingen campuses are there because of COVID-19. And while it’s not a “pure crisis management” situation like during the summer it’s getting worse, he said, noting that the hospital doesn’t have the staffing to handle another surge on that level.

“The numbers have doubled at our hospital over the last three to four weeks,” Vela said. “We need to stop that escalation now if we can. Because we don’t want to get to the point where we don’t have the beds available to take care of our communities here in Cameron County. Please don’t let your guard down now.”

Leslie Bingham, CEO of Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, said the positivity rate for people being tested for COVID-19 at her hospital has almost doubled from 10.8 percent to 19.5 percent, which poses a threat to capacity. Of the 20 percent who test positive, 58 percent are sick enough that they have to be admitted, she said.

“Seventy-eight percent of the people that are coming in the hospital right now who are COVID positive are citing exposure to positive family members as the source of the infection,” Bingham said. “It looks like that very typical generational passing-on.”

The trend is that younger people test positive initially, then the next generation of family members, then the next generation, she said.

“So those older folks are showing up at the hospital right now and they’re positive and they’re very sick,” Bingham said.

She stressed the importance of wearing masks in the home if family members or others are coming and going, since someone could easily bring the virus into the home with them, even if they don’t show symptoms.

County Public Health Administrator Esmeralda Guajardo said her office has noticed that many county residents are getting tested for the virus on Mondays and Fridays.

“While that’s a good thing, that the number of people getting tested is increasing, we want to make sure that people are not waiting to get tested,” she said. “If you’re sick during the week, don’t wait for Friday. And if for whatever reason you’re waiting, do not be out and about, because you could potentially expose others.”

Guajardo said the latest information on who is eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and when — a determination made by the state — is available on the Cameron County Public Health Facebook page. Tier 1 of the first phase of the vaccine roll-out covers front-line healthcare providers and emergency medical services personnel, while second tier will target nursing home residents and staff and home healthcare providers, she said.

“We’re seeing a lot of outbreaks occur from home health agencies,” Guajardo said.” These are individuals who take care of the elderly at home. … This is a big concern for us.”

Next in line for the vaccine will be school nurses, urgent care clinic staff, funeral homes and mortuaries, she said.

Guajardo praised county leadership and the hospitals for working hard to shepherd the county through the crisis over the last 10 months. She expressed gratitude to Public Health staff, who Guajardo said have been working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week through the crisis.

“They have done an amazing job,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s so difficult to see them sacrifice so much. I’m so proud of them.”

Guajardo said that when the vaccine becomes available to each segment of the population, it’s very important that residents come forward to receive it. It’s vital for the safety of families and front-line workers, she said. The two vaccines that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration each involve two injections, the second one following the first by about three weeks.

“If the vaccine is offered to you please take it,” Guajardo said.

Castillo said the county is fortunate to have an “infusion center” for newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients, who can receive an infusion of antibodies aimed at lowering their chances of having to be hospitalized. The center came online a week ago and is located at the Casa de Amistad convention hall in Harlingen, he said.

Castillo said healthcare providers need to know that it’s an option in cases of recently diagnosed patients with high-risk factors, including people over 65, people over 55 with heart problems, anyone living with diabetes, and children 12 or older who weigh over 40 kilograms and have chronic asthma requiring daily medication.

“We’re really, really lucky to have that as an option in our community,” he said.