Hidalgo County expands health office

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County’s health and human services department is adding 12 medical professionals and two portable buildings to its team to facilitate its response to COVID-19.

Hidalgo County Commissioners approved the additional resources during two separate meetings: one held April 7, and the other on Tuesday.

During the April 7 meeting, commissioners voted to add eight medical professionals to the payroll: three medical technicians, three licensed vocational nurses, an epidemiologist and a registered nurse.

On Tuesday, commissioners added four more: two more epidemiologists, another licensed vocational nurse and a public health specialist.

In total, the move is expected to have a budgetary impact of about $530,000, according to documentation provided as part of the agenda packet.

Still, there’s a possibility some of those expenses will be offset as relief monies from the federal and state government begin to trickle down. The expectation over the next two weeks or so, is that funds from the $2 trillion federal relief package will soon be disbursed to local entities as the bureaucratic process unfolds, Hidalgo County spokesman Carlos Sanchez said.

“On a daily basis, we’re learning about new pots of money because of COVID-19, and we’re aggressively pursuing them to alleviate the costs that we’re incurring throughout this crisis,” Sanchez said. “But it’s a very fluid situation right now.”

For example, on Tuesday, county commissioners approved a second wave of COVID-19 funding from the Texas Department of State Health Services, which has so far awarded Hidalgo County about $1.4 million.

Those funds, however, will be used to create additional space for the county’s health department, as requested by Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eddie Olivarez.

“The county building off of (Highway) 281 is kind of bursting at the seams, and he’s hoping to relocate some staff over there,” Sanchez said about Olivarez. “The money has already been awarded, and that money is going to be his to retrofit and get these two buildings in Edinburg.”

Some of the additional space might also be used for storage, he added.

Also on Tuesday, Jaime Longoria, executive director for the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency (CSA), presented an $86,000 Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

“This is a very small first wave of COVID money that we will be receiving,” Longoria told commissioners. “This is discretionary money that the state of Texas hangs on to in the event of a disaster and then they let it out just as a temporary response.”

Within the next two weeks or so, the county will receive an additional $6.5 million, he said. About $4.5 million will be earmarked to help residents with utilities, while the other $2 million will come in as a CSBG grant. Those types of grants are used to alleviate poverty in communities, which is also CSA’s main focus.

But in order to prepare the office to efficiently disburse the monies, more staff is required. So on Tuesday, commissioners approved the creation of 11 new positions: three eligibility workers, three case study managers, three data entry processing clerks, an accountant and a technician.

That’s expected to have a budgetary impact of about $322,000.

“The good news is that the agency is in a position to assist families who are in real need right now,” Longoria said.

Sanchez said the CSA grant and additional resources that were approved are a prime example of the “money that is being made available” and the county’s recognition that “in order to get this money out quickly, we would need additional personnel to help with processing and distribution of the funds.”

“It’s a very fluid situation,” he said. “This is going to be an ongoing process.”

Raul Silguero, the county’s human resources director, noted that the positions created for Longoria’s department are temporary.

“These are all grant-funded positions,” he said. “All the employees that are hired under this grant will be signing a letter to the effect that the position will expire when the funding expires.”