Area leaders warn of COVID-19 crisis

HARLINGEN — Area leaders Thursday called on residents to take strict safeguards to help curb a wave of holiday-spawned COVID-19 cases that have led Cameron County’s hospitalizations to quadruple, pushing hospitals into crisis.

During a press conference, Mayor Chris Boswell said COVID-19 hospitalizations at Harlingen and Brownsville hospitals have quadrupled in the last two months.

“We’re managing this crisis but it’s a crisis,” Manny Vela, Valley Baptist Health System’s chief executive officer, said during an interview. “We have to tow the line so it doesn’t become unmanageable. The urgent plea to the community is everyone adhere to best practices.”

Vela warned against a return to last summer’s health care crisis, when a dramatic spike in new COVID-19 cases led numbers to jump to more than 200 daily hospitalizations from late July into August.

During the press conference at Lon C. Hill Park, Vela said COVID-19 daily hospitalizations have climbed from about 25 to 100 in the last 45 to 60 days as a result of holiday gatherings from Halloween to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Now, officials expect new cases to jump as a result of New Year’s Eve gatherings.

Since October, the county’s number of new COVID-19 cases has soared.

On Oct. 30, health officials reported 59 new cases, bringing the county’s total case count to 24,280, County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.’s office stated.

On Wednesday, officials reported 303 new cases, with the total case count climbing to 30,768.

“We’re in a crisis situation,” Vela told a small group of reporters and city officials. “It can get more serious.”

Vela said he expected hospitalizations at Valley Baptist Health System to climb to more than 100 on Thursday.

“We had 25 people this morning waiting in the emergency department for a bed,” he said.

Vela blamed residents who refuse to follow federal safety guidelines including wearing facial coverings, practicing social distancing, avoiding crowds and frequent hand-washing.

“There’s a small population that continues its unwillingness to follow best practices,” he said. “Some people, to this day, are unwilling to put on a mask.”

Strained hospital staffs

At Harlingen Medical Center, the wave of COVID-19 cases has helped fill the hospital’s beds, stretching the staff of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists, Matt Wolthoff, the hospital’s chief executive officer, told reporters.

“We’re right now at capacity,” he said. “Every bed is full and about 25 percent are COVID patients. These patients require greater resources. In an area short on health care professionals, that constitutes a crisis.”

Ambulance delays

As patient beds fill up, residents requesting ambulances to take them to hospitals to test for the coronavirus are straining the city’s ambulance service, Rene Perez, South Texas Emergency Care’s transport director, said.

“We’re getting patients not feeling good who want to get tested,” he said. “Don’t utilize the 911 system for testing.”

The ambulance service’s new testing program is aimed at home-bound residents, Perez said.

“That’s available for folks who can’t get out of the house,” he said. “It’s designed for those disabled or can’t get around.”

Perez urged residents to turn to testing sites to test for COVID-19.

“If you’re sick, separate yourself from everyone else and get tested,” he said.

The wave of COVID-19 cases has forced hours-long delays in transporting patients into hospitals, Perez said.

“With hospitals being full, it causes delays in getting patients in hospitals,” he said. “We’re seeing patients sitting in ambulances for two or three hours.”

Vaccination clinic

During the press conference, Esmeralda Guajardo, the county’s public health administrator, said officials will hold their first COVID-19 community vaccination clinic at the Casa del Sol community center, at 221 E. Madison Ave., beginning at 7 a.m. today.

Guajardo, who said the county has received a total of 3,500 vaccine doses since the federal government launched its national vaccination program in mid December, told reporters the clinic would distribute the county’s remaining 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“We expect this is going to go pretty quickly,” she said, referring to the vaccine doses which will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

By late Thursday afternoon, people were pulling into the site located in a neighborhood setting, Josh Ramirez, the city’s public health director, said hours after the press conference.

“They said they were going to camp out. They wanted to be the first ones,” he said, referring to people who wanted to be among the first to receive the limited vaccine doses. “We discouraged them for their own good. It’s going to be cold.”

The clinic, which will be open to people regardless of their hometowns, will target those 65 and older and those suffering underlying medical conditions including cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, Type 2 diabetes mellitus as well as those who have received solid organ transplants.

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