Signs outside the DHR Health campus in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County dipped into a $15 million reserve in federal relief funding to give local hospitals $7.5 million to ensure there is enough capacity for COVID-19 patients, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said Thursday.

“The commissioners’ court voted on it a couple of weeks ago,” Cortez said, noting contracts and memorandums of understanding were still being executed. “I don’t believe any money has exchanged hands, but everything’s been authorized.”

The funding comes at a time when Hidalgo County residents are dying in droves due to complications from the illness, and it is part of the $151 million the county received in CARES act money earlier this year.

It was specifically taken from a $15 million reserve the county had set aside for unforeseen expenditures. Those $15 million, however, are also meant to fund any unforeseen expenditures the county’s 22 municipalities might have, and they account for about $18 out of the $132 per capita the cities were supposed to receive.

Cortez said he spoke to the mayors about the decision to dip into the reserve fund on Wednesday, weeks after commissioners made the decision.

“No one has expressed a problem with me,” the county judge said. “I told them yesterday, I said, ‘Guys, we set aside this money for an emergency for an unforeseen potential problem.’ I mean, we have 1,900 hospital rooms (and) more than a thousand were being used for COVID patients. Every single hospital. I had at least four conference call meetings with all the hospitals. They were all telling me the same thing: they were panicking for capacity.”

Cortez said commissioners made the decision before Gov. Greg Abbott announced an alternative healthcare facility would be opened inside the McAllen Convention Center, and he noted that Hidalgo County is not spending any money on that site.

“At the time that we made it, you know, we were thinking of the people that needed the help, and we still are thinking of the people that need the help,” he said.

Hospital beds stand ready in a negative pressure area at the McAllen Medical Center on March 19 in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“And then when the governor came up with the alternative site, everybody basically started to feel comfortable that we were taking care of the capacity issues. But these things were happening just really, really quickly. I mean, look at the numbers we’re still having — the fatalities,” Cortez added.

Thirty more deaths were reported in Hidalgo County on Thursday, bringing the virus’ death toll to 911.

“If anybody has a problem, I want to take them to the hospital so that they can hear the screaming of people calling for a nurse and (saying) they can’t breathe. OK? So I don’t know of any better use for these funds, and they were well within the allowable expenditures,” Cortez said.

Details about how much is being given to each hospital were not immediately available Thursday, though Cortez noted the county is following the funding formula local hospitals suggested in a letter they sent July 2 to commissioners in which they asked for funding in order to adequately address a drastic increase in the number of hospitalizations.

That formula takes into account how many patients a hospital treated, how long they were hospitalized and the level of care they required.

“You all can second guess us all you want again, but that’s fine, you know. We’re dealing with very difficult situations, trying to deal with them, and every decision we make, we get second-guessed. And somebody agrees with it, and somebody doesn’t. And it’s just very difficult — very difficult to operate in today’s environment, trying to keep everybody happy,” Cortez said.