COVID-19 hospitalizations are close to the lowest they’ve been since the start of the pandemic; however, Hidalgo County officials say the county is not out of the woods yet.

As of Wednesday, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were down to 114 throughout the entire Rio Grande Valley, according data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

That is down 20% from a month prior, May 16, when there were 143 COVID hospitalizations.

In Hidalgo County, alone, there were 75 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, a 26% decrease from the 102 individuals that were hospitalized a month prior.

But in addition to reflecting a drop from where the Valley was a month ago, the current numbers are also in sharp contrast to where the Valley was headed a year ago.

“At this time last year, in June, our numbers were dramatically increasing,” said Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority. “By this time one year ago, we were in full mode crisis, full blown-out crisis. We had 35-40 people dying at this time every day; escalated to about 70 every day.”

On June 16, 2020, there were 164 COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the Rio Grande Valley trauma service area. From there, the numbers just kept climbing, breaking 200 just three days later and breaking 300 exactly one week later.

A month later, on July 16, 2020, hospitalizations had reached 1,528 and peaked on July 22 at 1,606.

“When the pandemic started, no one was prepared with a cookbook of what to do, we were all learning together,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said. “The doctors were learning together how to treat it, the CDC was trying to learn how to deal with it — we were all learning together.”

“So the position that I took was a conservative position because lives were at stake and even though someone would say, ‘Well golly, more people die in the highways, more people die here, more people die there,’ to me, that was not relevant, those were not good arguments,” Cortez said. “Any life that’s saved is worth saving so I took a very conservative approach to the things that we were doing as a community, always advocating what we believed at the time to be the best practices for us to follow.”

The numbers started going down in August 2020 only to start going up again a few weeks after Halloween and which kept climbing through the holidays. They peaked during that wave on Jan. 26 with 744 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“Then we started going back down again as more vaccines were available, more people were getting it,” Melendez said, noting that health officials began administering vaccines in December.

“And so then we came down to about 100 which was a great milestone and roughly about … I want to say a couple of weeks ago, we finally broke 100 and went down in the 70s which we’re currently at now,” he said of the hospitalizations. “I think we even got down in the 60s a couple of days ago.”

“And then our deaths,” Melendez continued, “last week, I think it was, we had a couple of days that we didn’t have anybody die and then almost every day we have one maybe two, which is still way too much; it’s still not over, but it’s significantly better than 70 people a day and so our numbers right now are probably almost as low as it’s ever been since it started.”

But Melendez warned that the coronavirus was still very much a presence in the community, adding that the current situation is different from what it was at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The virus, I think to make home to the public, is that the virus that left Wuhan, China in November 2019 is not the virus that we’re battling right now. And the patient that we’re seeing in the Rio Grande Valley in the hospital is not the patient that we were seeing at the apex of this,” Melendez said.

He explained health officials were dealing with the COVID-19 variants, which were harder to treat.

“It’s stickier, in other words it sticks to our cells better, it penetrates easier, it infects people a lot easier than the original one and some studies have shown, for example, that the antibodies that we produce can be seven times less to the Delta (Variant) than to the original virus,” he said. “So our own natural immunity’s less, the response to the vaccine, though still responsive, is significantly less, our protection to that variant is significantly less and so we’re seeing a different virus that, although still our vaccines are working, it is significantly variated enough to where other medications that we were using before like monoclonal antibodies … are not very successful against this virus.”

As for patients, he explained they were different because they tend to be younger and therefore aren’t getting as sick.

“The patient is younger, he or she is not as sick and that makes sense because the very, very sick people have already passed away and we have over 90% of people over 65 in the Rio Grande Valley, over 90%, have been vaccinated and close to 50% of all adults,” Melendez said. “So we have a better survival rate only because the people that are getting infected are much younger and much more viable.”

Melendez added they’re also seeing breakthrough patients which are defined as those that are infected by COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated. Last week, he said he admitted two patients who were breakthrough cases but didn’t know how many there had been in Hidalgo County in total.

“Before, everyone that got admitted — high, high concern that they were going to die because by the time they got admitted, they were very, very, very sick,” he said. “Now, the majority of patients that are being admitted — we feel a lot more optimistic of their chances of leaving the hospital.”

Still, Melendez said he was still concerned that hospitalizations would get stuck at the current levels, concerned about the increasing resistance to treatment because of the variants, and concerned that the public overall believed the pandemic was over.

“I don’t want to lose any credibility as a public health authority by crying wolf or that the sky is falling down … but the numbers say that the virus is still in the community,” he said. “We are still carrying this virus.”

The best protection people can take against the virus, he said, was getting vaccinated but he also urged individuals to improve their baseline state of health.

“Whether that means control their diabetes better, control hypertension better, drink less, lose weight — all those factors that we know that were completely associated with why in the Rio Grande Valley, at one time, was the worst in the entire country and among the worst in the entire world.”

He stressed, though, that this responsibility didn’t just lie on individuals but on health systems as well.

“We have two free clinics for a population of 1.2 million, that’s crazy,” he said. “So not only the population themselves — by dieting, exercising — but also the systems, we need to focus on primary care systems.”

He reminded that people can be infected with COVID-19 and present no symptoms so, while he encouraged people to live their lives, he asked that they be smart about it.

“If you can maintain a little bit of distance from people, if you can do more handwashing, if you’re going into a public area, wearing masks, even though it’s not mandatory, is still a good idea,” Melendez said. “It’s still a good idea to be wearing face protection until we don’t have 75 people in the county in the hospital at all times with COVID.”

Cortez agreed and urged citizens to develop good habits of handwashing, sanitizing areas commonly touched by people, and protecting themselves when around other people.

“We’re better off today than we have ever been almost since we got started but there are very different variants of this disease that are out there,” Cortez said, “so we as a society, if not county, need to learn to take preventive precautions from passing or contracting any of these diseases and the best way we can do that is to practice those things that we know works.”

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