As the COVID-19 crisis in the Rio Grande Valley continues to worsen — with hospitals and mortuaries running out of space as more people become critically ill from the disease — Sen. John Cornyn says additional help is on the way.
Cornyn spoke with The Monitor Thursday to discuss the accelerating pandemic just as state and federal officials began to marshal more resources here, including the deployment of more than 630 healthcare workers from around the country to the Valley’s 12 hospitals.
“The staff are exhausted because of the endless number of cases they’ve had to handle without a day off,” Cornyn said.
“Staffing is the one thing that I was told is the most immediate need, although these are very concerning numbers and we know that (for) people with underlying health issues that this virus can be deadly,” Cornyn said.
The Republican senator added he has been in constant contact with local leaders, including Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez, whom Cornyn assured, “whatever you need, we’ll go to bat for.”
Already, Cornyn is making good on that promise.
On Friday, the state’s senior senator sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting additional federal resources to combat the pandemic, including a field hospital, medical equipment and additional staff.
Cornyn was joined in his plea to HHS by the entirety of the Valley’s congressional contingent, including fellow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville), Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), and Vicente Gonzalez (D-McAllen).
“Unfortunately, with the recent surges in COVID-19 cases over the past several weeks, our health systems have been pushed to their limits,” the congressmen wrote.
But Cornyn downplayed criticisms about the mixed messages being delivered from all levels of government regarding the severity of the pandemic, including the shifting messages coming from Gov. Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump.
“You know, there’s no playbook for this. I think people are trying to get the best advice that they can and respond appropriately,” Cornyn said.
“I think that the governor’s done a good job, but a lot of the issues, too, are happening at the local level. So, that argues against the idea of a ‘one size fits all’ national program,” Cornyn said of the president’s practice thus far of leaving the majority of the nation’s coronavirus response to its governors.
In Texas, however, Abbott has come under fire for his handling of the virus — especially from leaders in the hardest hit areas of the state.
In recent months, the governor’s tone has changed from one that celebrated the state’s low number of COVID-19 cases as the Texas economy began a phased reopening on May 1, to sparring with mayors and county judges across the state as they clamored for the autonomy to issue stricter emergency orders locally.
This week, Cortez himself joined the fray when he sent a letter to Gov. Abbott pleading for more local control. “I implore you to please return the emergency management authority to local jurisdictions,” Cortez wrote.
The county judge closed the letter by writing, “Our ability to respond has been limited since many of the local control options were taken from us. Governor Abbott, please let us help you in protecting the lives of our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Cornyn spoke of the virus’ unprecedented impact on the country, saying that though the situation has gotten worse in Texas in recent weeks, the state is still reporting far fewer deaths than other hotspots, such as New York — some 3,200 to New York’s 32,000.
“I know everybody wants to have a silver bullet, but I don’t think there is a silver bullet. And we’ve had to respond to changing circumstances,” Cornyn said. “I think in Texas, where our death rate is 1.29% — the lowest in the country — I think as sad as any death is, it’s a cause for, you know, optimism that we’ve done a better job than really the rest of the country in keeping fatalities low,” he said.
Still, over the last month, the Valley’s coronavirus crisis has worsened precipitously.
Between June 10 and July 10, the number of people testing positive in Hidalgo County increased 818% — from 842 cases then, to 7,727 cases as of Friday.
Patients needing hospitalization or admittance to intensive care units also rose dramatically. Hospitalizations rose by 1,714%, while ICU usage surged by 3,860% over the last month.
And fatalities have increased more than tenfold — from 12 reported COVID-19 fatalities in Hidalgo County on June 10, to 142 dead on Friday.
It’s alarming statistics like that that have kept hospitals on the Senate’s radar. According to Cornyn, the Senate is expected to pass at least one more round of COVID-19 legislation later this month before the August recess.
“We appropriated $150 billion for hospitals, but it sounds to me like this hotspot has really caught fire, then we need to surge some additional resources — both in terms of personnel and hospital beds to the Valley,” Cornyn said.