Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County's Health and Human Services administrative officer, answers questions during a press conference between four area county judges at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council offices on Thursday in Weslaco. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

WESLACO — County judges from across the Rio Grande Valley came together to issue a dire warning as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue on a steep rise.

“We are here to tell you that this virus is not gone,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said during his opening remarks at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco on Thursday. “The threat of infections continues and remains.”

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño echoed Cortez.

“People are talking about a second wave coming to the fall. There’s an assumption there that we’ve already passed the first wave — we’re in the first wave,” Treviño said. “This has never stopped.”

Infections slowed down briefly after local authorities issued stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates, but then Gov. Greg Abbott eased restrictions and essentially took that power away from local authorities, the Valley’s four county judges said.

“The governor’s (order) supersedes any order that we have, so really, our hands are tied to a lot of things,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said. “We cannot mandate some of the things that certainly I would like to mandate. I can’t do it. So what we’re doing, what we’re trying to accomplish here, is that our communities understand that this is a very serious situation that we’re in.”

Hidalgo and Starr counties saw their biggest single-day increases on Thursday, reporting 70 and 23 new cases, respectively.

Texas has also had a record high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations for a third day in a row, Cortez said.

“In Hidalgo County, hospitalizations have nearly tripled in the last two weeks,” he added, indicating that 44 people remained hospitalized Thursday and five of them were in intensive care units.

By the end of the day Thursday, that number had climbed to 51, with eight in intensive care.

Statistics are displayed during a COVID-19 press conference between four area county judges at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council offices on Thursday in Weslaco. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Those most-affected by hospitalizations are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Cortez said. Though he did also indicate that among similar-sized counties, Hidalgo County continues to have one of the lowest rates of infections.

“We know what works: shelter at home, avoid mass gatherings, (use) facial coverings if possible and practice good hygiene — all practices that we collectively ordered throughout much of March and April,” Cortez said.

And despite the increase in the number of hospitalizations, Cortez said the county is not close to overburdening the local healthcare system.

“The answer is no, not yet,” he said. “We do have an excess capacity right now at the levels that we’re in.”

That’s not the case in Cameron, which has been hit the hardest when compared to its neighboring counties and doesn’t have as many hospital beds as Hidalgo. On Thursday, the county reported 41 additional cases and two more deaths, bringing the death toll to 44.

“We are in a different situation. (Our) numbers are creeping up, and there’s a concern,” Treviño said. “We were at 41 yesterday (for) non-ICU-dedicated beds — 22%. Those numbers match our high point back in April, when we thought we hit our top point. So we are concerned.”

Many of the infected have ties to two nursing home facilities in Harlingen and Brownsville.

“The situation in Cameron County, unfortunately, has been a little more dire and drastic because of the fact that we had a couple of hotspots at those nursing homes,” Treviño said. “What’s been very disheartening, disappointing, frustrating — for my sake, as county judge of Cameron — is that as of today, we’ve experienced 42 deaths.”

Willacy County, which has reported three deaths, saw an outbreak at its county jail, county Judge Aurelio Guerra said.

“At this point, we’re raising the flag that there’s somewhat of a change for the worse,” he said.

But there’s a way to slow the spread, he added.

“I want to let everybody out there know that the control is with the community — nothing has changed,” he said. “As far as that goes, you have your own situation, you make your decisions, but just keep in mind that your decisions affect others.”

Vera asked residents to remain at home, despite the governor’s orders to continue opening businesses at 75% capacity beginning Friday.

“It doesn’t mean that you have to go, you know? I strongly encourage that you avoid any type of meetings in restaurants or anything like that,” he said. “Right now, you have to be concerned about your families. You know, we’ve had several babies — weeks-old, months-old. Those babies are not going to any party; it’s people that are going out and then coming home and getting them infected. If you don’t care about yourself, think about your family.”

The Starr County judge is concerned people stopped taking the disease seriously when Abbott began to ease restrictions.

Hidalgo County judge Richard Cortez, Cameron County Eddie Treviño, Jr. and Willacy County judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra along with Starr County judge Eloy Vera during a press conference on COVID 19 infections at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council offices on Thursday, June, 11, 2020 in Weslaco. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“As soon as that happened, I think our citizens got the impression that everything was fine. They got this false sense of security — now I can go to the beach; now I can go to the movies; I can go to the restaurants; I can pretty much do whatever I was doing before. And that’s not so,” Vera said. “In fact, I tell people it’s worse now than it was back then, because more people are now having the active virus. So the odds of you coming into contact with someone that has it, is a lot greater than two months ago.”

Treviño also noted the virus is spreading amongst families.

“I know everybody’s missing their family and friends; missing giving them a hug and a kiss on the cheek or shaking hands and doing all the other stuff that we’re used to doing, but we’re putting each other in danger,” he said. “The clusters that we’ve seen are family members giving it to one another.”

Treviño also rejected the notion that hot temperatures would slow the spread of the disease, calling it a “fallacy.”

“Here we are in June, mid-90 degrees, and the virus is in full force,” he said.