As COVID-19 cases in Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley continue to climb on a daily basis, officials here are looking at extending — and beefing up — the emergency order that’s shuttered businesses and required residents to stay at home in an effort to stop the virus’ spread in the community.
And Friday was no different as officials here reported seven new cases, bringing the total tally to 86.
Cameron County reported seven news cases Friday as well, bringing its total to 62, while on Friday both Starr and Willacy counties each had five cases apiece, bringing the total number of positive cases in the Rio Grande Valley to 158.
During a Facebook Live talk Friday afternoon, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said that, as of Thursday, 635 tests had been administered in Hidalgo County, with 108 of those tests being issued by the county while 527 originated from private labs or physicians. UTRGV alone tested 178 people last week, Cortez said.
In Friday’s announcement, the county said that five of the seven new cases reported were positive results out of an undisclosed new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley drive-thru testing facility. Officials added that the individuals who tested positive are not associated with the university, according to the news release.
Cortez also said that as of Thursday, seven people had been hospitalized for COVID-19, with four of those individuals being cared for in ICUs.
The recovery rate for those hospitalized, however, is good, Cortez said, explaining that when someone has been hospitalized here they are generally discharged within three to four days.
Cortez said the county has partnered with UTRGV to develop a projection model to determine the total amount of cases Hidalgo County could be looking at. He said after positive cases that come out next week are tallied, authorities will have an opportunity to make a more accurate projection with the two weeks’ worth of data since the virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days.
COVID-19 has appeared in at least nine Hidalgo County cities since March 21, including Donna, Edinburg, Mercedes, McAllen, Pharr, Weslaco, Hidalgo, Mission and San Juan. On Thursday, officials announced there is now clear evidence of community spread.
The only cities with double digits are McAllen and Pharr, both of which have 19 positive cases.
However, there are three cases where location hasn’t been disclosed because the community, or communities, where they originate are so small officials believe identifying the location would violate federal medical privacy laws.
Additionally, early on in Hidalgo County’s reporting of COVID-19 cases, there were six individuals who officials said were positive, but the location of where they live was not disclosed.
As a situation local leaders have never had to deal with before, the county’s reporting on COVID-19 numbers has evolved daily, as has its response to the pandemic.
“These are things we have never been confronted with,” Cortez said Friday.
FRUSTRATION AND COMPLIANCE
Cortez signed the emergency order nine days ago, and in that time, positive COVID-19 cases have climbed from 11 to 86.
An essential requirement of that order is that residents shelter at home, Cortez and numerous officials have said repeatedly. People shouldn’t leave their residences unless they have essential reason to, such as seeking medical care or picking up medications. Residents are also allowed to buy food and essential supplies for their households.
Just as much as officials have harped on reminding residents to stay at home, they’ve also expressed frustration, saying they don’t think people are listening.
“I’m seeing, just a lot of people out on the road,” Cortez said. “I’m seeing a lot of people that don’t believe shelter in place is the right thing to do.”
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday that it would begin arresting people for violating the order. While that agency didn’t make any arrests, according to jail records, Weslaco and Mission police did.
Weslaco police arrested a 59-year-old woman while Mission police arrested three men aged 29, 27 and 23. That city also said on Twitter Friday that it had arrested four additional people.
Law enforcement agencies across Hidalgo County have also set up road blocks to determine whether people are in compliance with the order.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, Cortez said officials are re-examining the 11-page emergency order because the county has realized there have been unintended consequences that have made it difficult to enforce certain aspects of the order.
One likely change is how long it will be in place. The order is set to expire on April 10, but will likely be extended, Cortez said.
The city of Mission on Friday announced that its city council voted to extend its emergency order until April 30.
Officials are also looking at language in the order regarding what grocery stores should be open, as well as discussing possible roadblocks on the expressway for people traveling to Hidalgo County from Starr and Cameron counties.
“These are things we’re looking at,” Cortez said. “I’m not going to say no to anything.”
The county judge said he’s informed the commission and the mayors of all 22 municipalities in Hidalgo County that officials here are considering a face mask mandate similar to the one that took effect in the city of Laredo on Thursday.
The Laredo Morning Times reported that Laredo’s City Council mandated that anyone entering a building that is not their home must cover their mouth and nose with a mask, bandana, scarf or any fabric or face a fine of up to $1,000.
At least two cities here have approved similar measures.
On Friday afternoon, the city of Edinburg passed an order requiring anyone who is aged three or older to wear a piece of fabric, a t-shirt, a bandana or a scarf over their mouth before entering into any building that is not their residence, when in any business parking lot or when pumping gas. Officials emphasized they are not requiring people to wear medical masks.
“Doctors believe COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” Mayor Richard Molina said in a news release. “But there is also medical information suggesting aerosolized droplets can be produced just by talking or even breathing. Edinburg, do not take this lightly. This is a public health emergency.”
The order takes effect Monday.
The city of Palmview also amended its emergency order on Friday to make the same requirements. That took effect immediately.
Starr County officials took the same step Friday and amended that county’s emergency order to require people to wear a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief when entering a building that is not their home, when using public transportation or rideshares, or when pumping gas.
That order takes effect Sunday.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling didn’t go so far as to require it, but said in a news release Friday morning that he is recommending residents do cover their mouths when leaving their homes. He also urged residents not to purchase medical face masks.
As hospitals and health officials treat current patients, they are also preparing for any possible surge in cases.
Cortez, the county judge, said in the Friday Facebook Live chat that hospitals are planning to treat COVID-19 patients at off-site facilities.
He also said that about 10% of patients in Hidalgo County have need hospitalization and at least five have entered the ICU, as of Thursday.
“The hospitals themselves are planning for a surge and we’re all planning that we’re going to have many, many more people test positive,” Cortez said. “Our hope is only 10% testing positive need hospital treatment.”
Right now, there are 78 ICU rooms in Hidalgo County, Cortez said.
So if the county reaches a point where there are 780 positive COVID-19 cases, that means it’s possible 78 would be in ICUs, triggering a capacity problem. If the capacity level is breached, that becomes a problem.
“That’s a real emergency,” Cortez said.
And he didn’t mince words. Officials believe it is possible that Hidalgo County could see that many cases if the current trend continues, according to Cortez.
“As you can tell that’s a big number,” Cortez said. “We can be there by the end of the month.”
Since Cortez ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses, some have done what they can to stay afloat.
Many people, however, have found themselves out of a job and seeking unemployment assistance, while businesses that remain open are operating in the red.
“We need to get businsses back to being opened,” Cortez said. “We need to get people back to work.”
The county is working toward that.
Cortez said he’s creating a committee of industry leaders to “Say, ‘Hey, what can we do together to put you in the best position to get you back to work?'” Cortez said in explaining the task force’s formation.
He also said the county is working to identify every state and federal assistance program to see if it qualifies in order to bring economic aid.
But the only way the community will get to that point, Cortez explained throughout his Facebook Live chat, is if people adhere to the emergency order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout Hidalgo County.
“I hope that everybody understands this is a health emergency,” Cortez said. “And we don’t want the disease to control us. We want to control the disease.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the day when Starr County’s order takes effect.