Hidalgo Co. health authority predicts pandemic to worsen as winter nears

Dr. Ivan Melendez

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Rio Grande Valley remain drastically lower than their peak in July, signaling an improvement in the coronavirus situation here, overall. However, Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said he expects the situation to get worse as winter approaches.

Melendez said Friday that multiple upcoming factors lead him to believe that COVID-19 statistics will start to trend upward.

“I expect that by December, we’re going to have an increase, hopefully not to the level to which we saw before, but certainly more than now,” Melendez said.

Those contributing factors, Melendez said, are Winter Texans returning from different parts of the country, the arrival of the winter season, problems with the flu weakening people, the reopening of schools, increased capacity at restaurants, and people who decided to go trick-or-treating.

“Now they’re talking about bars opening,” Melendez added. “Then we have Thanksgiving.”

“We’re having all these little logs on the fire,” he said. “So my models indicate to me that our numbers are going to go up. How much depends on how much people disregard public safety.”

Since the peak in July, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Valley have dropped about 83%.

In Hidalgo County, specifically, there were 188 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, county officials reported Friday, and 67 of those patients were in an intensive care unit.

In Starr County, the one hospital there admitted a single patient in the COVID-19 unit within the last few days, according to Thalia H. Muñoz, CEO and administrator for Starr County Memorial Hospital.

“We have seen an influx of more patients coming to the ER,” Muñoz added. “I think people were afraid, before, to even be coming to the ER, but the past few days we have seen at least between 20 and 30 patients that show up every day.”

She said an average of about five of those 20 to 30 patients come in with COVID-19 symptoms, with one or two testing positive for the disease.

“Out of those one or two patients that test positive,” Muñoz added, “either they’re admitted to our hospital, they’re discharged home, or they’re transferred to a higher level of care, depending on the acuity and the severity of the illness.”

At their peak, Valley hospitals were inundated with COVID-19 cases and struggled to find space, equipment and staff to handle the patients.

On Tuesday, though, the state informed Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez that caseloads in Valley hospitals no longer surpassed 15% capacity and the area was therefore  no longer considered a high-hospitalization area for COVID-19.

Having that designation prevented hospitals from offering elective procedures, Muñoz said.

“The good news is that for the past seven days, all the hospitals in the Valley have now decreased to below 15% occupancy rate for the COVID patients,” Muñoz said, “so, according to the governor’s mandate, if we fell below that 15% for seven consecutive days, we could open up for services that were elective.”

Those services include elective surgeries and gastrointestinal services.

“So as of this Monday, the 12th, we are starting to do the GI procedures here,” she said. “We’re working on scheduling surgeries also, if not next week then the week after that, so all of that is in process already.”

Muñoz added that they are now scheduling patients for mammograms, a service that was also on hold, and are being offered at a discounted rate of $95.

“Anybody that’s interested or needs to have that done, we’re open to be able to schedule you.”

Because the Starr County hospital has so few COVID-19 patients, the additional staff that were sent by the state to assist, are being demobilized.

“My understanding is that as of the end of this month, probably all the extra help that we have gotten will be demobilized,” Muñoz said. “We have been doing this in bits and pieces, a few at at time.”

But if the situation in the Valley takes a turn for the worse, as Melendez predicts, Muñoz said the additional staff would be available to them.

“We have been assured that if the trend were to change, we can always call and ask for the help again,” she said.