A global humanitarian organization returned to the Rio Grande Valley Friday to continue assessing how its medical resources can help the community amid the COVID-19 pandemic — only this time the visit appears to be sanctioned by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.
“Our team is back in McAllen today for additional assessment as we move forward in our talks with local, state, and U.S. authorities,” Melissa Strickland, a senior communications director at Samaritan’s Purse said Friday via text message. “At this time, it is still not confirmed that we will respond.”
Samaritan’s Purse first visited McAllen July 13 at the behest of Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. Gonzalez connected Samaritan’s team with local health officials and hospital administrators to measure the feasibility of setting up a field hospital in McAllen like the one the organization previously set up to treat COVID-19 patients in New York.
But after a tour of the region, the faith-based organization announced last week it would not come to South Texas after all. The nonprofit said in a statement the team made the decision after speaking with Abbott’s office.
At the time, Abbott’s staff pointed to triple-digit heat and possible hurricane threats as obstacles for the organization to bring in their resources. The governor’s office specifically noted that the temperature of the asphalt, where the tent hospitals would reportedly be set, surpassed the 140 degree mark on a thermometer.
Gonzalez, who publicly sparred with Abbott’s office after the decision came down, noted those same field hospitals have been set up in locations with similar weather conditions, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, also noted Monday that the plan was never to have the organization set up a tent hospital on asphalt. Instead, he said, local officials planned to house the makeshift hospital inside the McAllen Convention Center.
On Friday, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling corroborated Melendez’s statements, saying the city of McAllen had offered the use of the facility.
“We’re still hearing things, where there’s going to (be) a 100-unit here or there. I don’t know,” Darling said. “Those rumors are flying around pretty fast, but I’m not sure what the game plan is from that standpoint.”
Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and Alonzo Cantu, a construction magnate and a board manager at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, indicated Friday the group was here again in coordination with Abbott’s office. John Wittman, the governor’s spokesman, however, did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think the person who’s working on this is the governor’s office — not us,” Cantu said. “But we’d love to have them.”
Cantu said DHR would be willing to house the group at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, which sits adjacent to the hospital.
“We’d love to have anybody that could come help, as long as they treat all patients,” he said. “We can provide them whatever resources we can to help them cause they’re only here to help South Texas.”
Cortez shared similar information regarding the organization’s visit and its coordination with state officials.
“We’re still trying to confirm the facts, trying to make sure that everything we do is based on solid facts before we make any moves, and that’s accurate,” Cortez said. “There’s a lot of moving parts going on right now.”
The county judge also noted state officials began housing convalescent patients at the La Quinta hotel in Pharr on Friday — an effort Abbott’s office noted when it initially turned down help from Samaritan’s Purse.
“They’re doing like 10 rooms a day, more or less,” Cortez said about the state, and noted the county is also working on procuring another similar facility. “We are close to doing a deal for 100 beds. It’s in (the) legal and purchasing (department).”
Strickland, the communications official at Samaritan’s Purse, said Friday the organization has not yet made a decision on a site or deployment.
“We’re waiting for the assessment team to complete their visit,” she said via text.
And even though help from Samaritan’s Purse is not guaranteed, Gonzalez remained optimistic.
“I don’t care who wants to take credit for bringing (a) Samaritan’s Purse hospital down to the RGV. I’m just glad people saw the light…,” he said. “I won’t stop advocating for more resources till we have this virus under control.”
In the meantime, Cortez was keeping his eye on tropical Storm Hanna, which was making its way to the Texas Gulf Coast, and making sure that the five refrigerated trucks, where bodies were being stored for lack of space at local funeral homes, were safe.
“I went over to see those refrigerated trucks and we had to move them because a storm’s coming, and they have bodies and they’re out in the open,” Cortez said. “So we want to make sure that we have them secure so we’re making arrangements for that.”
The county is also requesting more trucks.
“We’re anticipating a very large number of fatalities here in the next couple of weeks,” Cortez said. “So that’s kind of where we are — it’s just a bad situation. We gotta get out of it.”