BY ALEJANDRA YANEZ, BERENICE GARCIA AND XAVIER ALVAREZ
EDINBURG — With Hidalgo County in the midst of what officials on Tuesday referred to as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” county and school officials urge parents to vaccinate their children and themselves ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
During a news conference with Hidalgo ISD on Tuesday morning, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were not not improving, noting that in the last week alone the county had seen a 100% increase in hospitalizations.
“An amazing statistic is that 90% of (those) being hospitalized with this virus have not been vaccinated,” Cortez said. “What does this show? That this is strong evidence that vaccines do work.”
As the number of people seeking the vaccine dwindles, Cortez reiterated the importance of getting vaccinated, especially as children are on the verge of returning to school.
The Texas Education Agency is not requiring safety precautions in schools such as social distancing, handwashing, and the use of masks.
But the Hidalgo school district is now pushing for autonomy from the governor to decide itself what is best for its students.
“We are in the trenches every single day and we know what needs to happen in our communities, in our school systems and in our cities to make it a safer environment,” Hidalgo ISD Superintendent Xavier Salinas said at Tuesday’s news conference. “I ask that everyone call their representatives, everyone call the governor’s office and bug them to give us the flexibility to make the decision for our schools, our communities, our county, because we know what’s best for our schools.”
But if that flexibility is not granted by the time school begins, Salinas urged parents to nonetheless send their children to school with masks, and asked those who worked in schools to use masks.
With four COVID-19 variants now detected in the county, the superintendent said the most vulnerable groups are children between the ages of 3 and 11 because they are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Edinburg CISD is seeing three times the COVID patients compared to last week, according to Dr. Marissa Gomez-Martinez, physician executive for DHR Health Urgent Care.
“I would say about two weeks ago we had four or five positives in one week and then we went up to 14,” Gomez-Martinez said during a briefing at the Edinburg CISD School Based Health Center.
Gomez-Martinez attributed this current rise in cases to children going to summer camp, becoming exposed to the virus and transmitting it to other family members, both vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Children in general do much better than adults when contracting the virus and experience mild symptoms, but it’s harder for a child to isolate in the household.
The doctor also cited travel as a reason for the uptick, which correlates to children visiting camps.
Some patients are coming home from vacation not feeling well — experiencing high fevers, extreme fatigue, congestion and other symptoms — and eventually test positive for COVID-19.
And though the majority of new cases are of unvaccinated patients, there are some vaccinated people who are still falling ill to the virus, but those cases consist of people with risk factors such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, or age.
“The ones who are vaccinated are definitely doing really well and showing more mild symptoms — kind of like a mild cold,” Gomez-Martinez said. “The ones who aren’t vaccinated, some of them have had a more severe course, but so far we have not had to hospitalize any patients at this clinic.”
Gomez-Martinez states that masks are still essential and social distancing should continue being practiced, especially with schools reopening soon.
TUESDAY’S CASE ACTIVITY
As for overall cases, Hidalgo County reported one COVID-19 death on Tuesday along with 196 new cases, raising the total number of fatalities in the county to 2,928 and total cases to 95,083.
Of those total cases, 61,754 were confirmed, 31,064 were probable and 2,265 were suspected. Currently, 871 cases are considered active.
But perhaps the best indicator of the current COVID-19 situation — hospitalizations — had jumped to 128 in Hidalgo County as of Tuesday morning, according to Eddie Olivarez, the chief administration officer for the county’s health and human services department.
Of those 128 patients, 41 were being treated in an intensive care unit.
That represented an 88% increase in hospitalizations and a 95% increase in ICU admissions since the week of July 11 through July12, Olivarez said.
He added that of the staffed hospital beds in Hidalgo County, 12.19% were occupied by COVID patients.
“Remember, at one time, the governor stated that anything above 15% would be a mandatory requirement for a lot of the different stages that he put several months ago,” Olivarez said. “Today, we’re at 12.1%.”
Because of the county’s limitations in implementing safety measures, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said his role was to guide residents toward making healthy decisions.
“Within the limitations that we have, based on the governor’s mandate and allowing us the flexibility that we have, then we have only certain things that we can strongly recommend,” Melendez said.
He noted that the Academy of Pediatrics is strongly recommending masks for back to school activities while Cortez pointed to the 400% decrease in overall respiratory viruses since the implementation of mask use.
Melendez called on the community to fulfill its responsibility to protect their neighbors and stop the spread and mutation of this virus by following safety protocols, warning that a time will come when the virus will mutate to the point where it will not be responsive to the few tools that are currently available to stop it.
Cortez, on the other hand, tried to appeal to residents’ empathy for others in an attempt to encourage the use of masks and encourage vaccinations.
“I urge everyone to consider our community instead of our own inconvenience,” Cortez said. “If you’re not willing to do so for yourself, then do so for our children, especially our younger children who cannot get vaccinated.”