HARLINGEN — Through one of modern history’s most momentous years, doctors are learning life-saving lessons that are helping to cut down the coronavirus’ staggering death toll.
On Friday, the nation’s death rate, whose toll stood at 559,516, had dropped by 74 percent from its peak on Jan. 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Since January, the Rio Grande Valley’s death count has also been dropping.
On Thursday, Cameron and Hidalgo counties reported a total of three deaths amid the pandemic’s Valley toll of 4,721.
Factors behind the dropping death rate include people taking better safety precautions, the virus’ possible seasonality which might lead to more cases during winter months, the population’s partial immunity as more contract COVID-19 and higher numbers of vaccinations.
But in hospitals across the country, doctors have developed medical treatments that are also cutting down the death rate.
“The death rate has come down over time,” Dr. Jose Campo Maldonado, an infectious disease specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center, said. “It’s been a learning moment for everybody. We can learn more in time.”
Valley’s high death rate
During the summer of 2020, the Valley’s death rate ranked as one of the nation’s highest.
On Aug. 24, Cameron County’s death rate stood at 2.89 percent, Hidalgo’s at 4.94 percent, Starr’s at 4.20 percent and Willacy’s at 5.17 percent, according to medpagetoday.
Across the Valley, a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases was pushing hospitals over capacity.
Meanwhile, some of the nation’s highest rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension were helping to spur the region’s COVID-19-related death toll.
“July, August was the most difficult time,” Josh Ramirez, Harlingen’s public health director, said. “We had the highest spike and we lost so many people. Folks at the hospital were devastated. I remember talking to doctors — the desperation of ‘What else can we do?’ They felt hopeless trying to save a life. Everybody was learning. There was no option for treatment as there is now.”
As the pandemic raged, doctors began developing treatments.
“The treatments that were implemented saved lives,” Ramirez said. “If all of that was not put into place, we would have lost more people.”
Reducing lung inflammation
At Valley Baptist Medical Center, Campo Maldonado and a team of doctors were learning how to treat the victims of the novel virus.
“Some of the hypotheses have to do with learning how to manage this,” Campo Maldonado said. “As we practice, the physicians’ skills improve also. The experience with the illness helps doctors manage complications.”
At the hospital, doctors faced a virus which infected the lungs, too often leading to respiratory failure.
To try to save lives, doctors turned to corticosteroids, steroid hormones known to reduce inflammation.
“The hypothesis is patients have an inflammatory process going on in the lungs and these drugs block an inflammatory response,” Maldonado Campo said. “Patients who are severely ill or need oxygen get a benefit and the mortality decreases.”
Meanwhile, Campo Maldonado believes doctors are becoming better skilled in administering oxygen.
“Doctors may be getting better in the management of oxygen — how to use oxygen for respiratory support for people hospitalized with COVID-19,” he said.
But respiratory equipment was in short supply.
“At the beginning, health care facilities were very challenged by limited supplies,” Campo Maldonado said.
So last July, Harlingen officials teamed up with Cameron County leaders to donate 200 oxygen concentrators to area hospitals, allowing them to send patients home with the units to complete their recovery, freeing up beds for critical patients.
As the pandemic evolved, doctors found COVID-19 patients were developing blood clots.
Soon, early diagnosis of conditions such as pulmonary embolism and deep venous thrombosis were helping to save lives, Campo Maldonado said.
“When you’re diagnosed early, it’s easier to treat,” he said.
Meanwhile, doctors found monoclonal antibodies could treat COVID-19 patients.
Late last year, the Texas Division of Emergency Management opened the Therapeutic Infusion Center at Harlingen’s Casa de Amistad conference hall, targeting patients who hadn’t been hospitalized.
Research had found monoclonal antibodies were similar to antibodies produced in COVID-19 patients.
At the center, therapists were infusing the antibodies, binding them to the virus to stop it from entering the patient’s system.
“All that helped reduce the COVID effect and give them a better chance at survival,” Ramirez said, adding the center treated more than 1,000 patients.
“They would have ended up in the hospital, probably in worse condition, and probably we would have had more dead. At the end, the goal is trying to save more lives.”