COMMENTARY: Gov. Abbott failed us

BY U.S. REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ

Governor Abbott failed us. With each passing day, this virus claims the lives of more South Texans. The families, friends and neighbors left behind call my offices daily. They lament that more should have be done much sooner to stop this outbreak, and I agree.

In mid-April, President Donald Trump encouraged the reopening of our economy and our country against the advice of medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

On May 1, Texas Governor Greg Abbott heeded the premature and ill-informed call to move forward with a phased plan to jumpstart the Texas economy. A little over two weeks passed, and bars and restaurants in the Lone Star State reopened. Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans promised the state would follow the advice of medical experts (they didn’t) and implement “common sense” safety measures (they weren’t).

Cities and counties saw coronavirus safety measures rolled back almost immediately in the name of “common sense” and economic prosperity. Mandatory mask requirements were rescinded, and bars, restaurants, and hair salons opened sooner than expected with minimal enforcement of capacity. Governor Abbott denied local authorities the ability to protect their own citizens and prohibited them from issuing stay at home orders.

As the state began its phased reopening, the coronavirus case count in Texas doubled. Even with cases rising, Governor Abbott allowed social events occurring during the Memorial Day weekend to go on.

While Governor Abbott stroked President Trump’s ego, Hidalgo County teetered on the precipice of disaster. Governor Abbott and President Trump’s rush to reopen combined with a mixture of underlying medical conditions created the ‘perfect storm’.

In South Texas, our way of life became a significant risk factor. Hispanics, known for multi-generational, social households, were found to be three times as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus. A majority Hispanic county, Hidalgo County suffers higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity compounding the chances of complications or death associated with catching COVID-19.

From May 25 to June 25, state health officials reported that the coronavirus cases more than doubled to 75,000 compared to the month prior. The numbers in South Texas spiked eight-fold from June 1 to June 16 with little reaction from the Governor’s office.

At a press conference in late-June, our “common sense” Governor closed bars, but still allowed for the operation of restaurants and businesses without masks at 50 percent capacity. Elective surgeries were cancelled and soon after, following repeated calls from myself and others, the Governor begrudgingly issued a mandatory mask order.

After hearing the cries of desperation, on Monday, July 13, I convened hospital administrators, Hidalgo County authorities, officials from state government, and the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse in an effort to discuss the situation and the potential establishment of a field hospital. We proposed housing their facility inside the air-conditioned McAllen Convention Center.

Samaritan’s Purse has expertly responded to some of the most intense public health and humanitarian crises we have seen to date, including the Ebola pandemic in Africa and the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Their  field hospitals are equipped to weather the heat of Afghanistan and Iraq and staffed with experienced personnel ready to save lives.

Following their tour of South Texas hospitals, Samaritan’s Purse was ready to deploy, but was dissuaded by Governor Greg Abbott’s “common sense”. While these field hospitals were ready to treat patients in the Valley, the Governor saw fit to deny their service by using South Texas climate as the excuse.

Since Samaritan’s Purse visited South Texas, 544 members (and counting) of our community in Hidalgo County have died because of the coronavirus and more than 1,000 lives have been lost in the Rio Grande Valley. The death rate has ballooned with South Texans dying at least twice as much as the rest of the state. This early hospital could have saved lives.

For those who succumbed to this virus, most have died alone in hospitals and nursing home’s. Their bodies sit in freezer trucks and families are forced to grieve from a distance. They wait for weeks on end for crematorium and limited funeral services.

Death is not the only indicator of our overwhelmed hospital systems. Capacity remains a constant issue. Intensive care units in Hidalgo County are full. We suffer oxygen shortages that one would expect in a developing country. Scenes at the hospitals are heartbreaking and doctors and nurses cry privately every day.

Almost a month later, Governor Abbott finally authorized a non-ICU medical facility at the McAllen Convention Center and claims he is doing all he can. While much appreciated, South Texans can’t help but feel this action should have been taken much sooner.

Although the Governor visited our region for media opportunities in the last month, a leader does not swoop in at the last minute to clean up a mess they made. Leaders don’t equivocate in the face of a crisis. Leaders make the right decisions, quickly, based on science and the advice of experts.

Local officials still lack the ability to enforce stay-at-home orders. Governor Abbott still supports sending our teachers and students into potentially unsafe school environments. The steps the Governor takes next could mean the difference between life and death.

I never wanted to be critical of our Governor. Some local elected officials stood by the Governor and said this was apolitical. They could not have been more wrong. And although, not easy, someone had to speak the truth.

When given the chance to prevent needless deaths, corporate interests and political pandering superseded the health and wellbeing of Texans. No one wanted to see our state’s economy suffer, but with the body count rising, no one gets a pass.

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U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez represents Texas Congressional District 15, which extends from Hidalgo County to Bexar County.