Local hospitals say they are ready for coronavirus

The director of emergency services for Valley Baptist Medical Center said the hospital is prepared in the event large numbers of people in Cameron County become ill due to the new coronavirus.

Wesley Milum said VBMC’s current preparations are very similar to how it responds to normal flu seasons as well as communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, brought in by international traffic.

“This is not something that is outside of our normal processes,” he said. “We are very well prepared at least in the sense of being able to isolate, contain and treat those patients that do need that treatment.”

VBMC has well-tested plans for handling a surge in patients, though it’s generally more focused on mass-casualty events like plane or bus crashes, Milum said. Still, the capability is there.

“Our response would be very similar to what we experienced with H1N1 (swine flu),” Milum said. “A lot of those processes are very, very similar to make sure we’re identifying positive patients on entry to our facility, and make sure we’re limiting exposure and the like.”

Fifty-one people in Texas had tested positive for coronavirus, or COVID-19, as of Saturday morning, and the first instances of community spread in the state have been detected in the Dallas and Houston metro areas. Health authorities have reported no cases of coronavirus in Cameron County or the Rio Grande Valley. As of Friday afternoon, four county residents had been tested, according to county Judge Eddie Trevino Jr, who said two of the tests came back negative and the results weren’t in from the other two.

Milum said that about 80 percent of people with coronavirus exhibit mild or no symptoms. If someone shows up at the hospital with telltale symptoms, however, VBMC will confer with the county health department and, if given the green light based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, will send a sample from the patient to a CDC-certified lab for testing. Testing is not done in house, he said. Trevino said Friday that a mobile testing lab had been set up in Harlingen though only 125 test kits were currently available.

At VBMC’s campuses in Brownsville and Harlingen, entry is being denied to anyone, other than incoming patients, with flu-like symptoms, Milum said.

“When somebody’s entering our facility we’re asking them about what their symptoms are, not just patients but visitors too,” he said. “We’re a bit concerned that there could be some potentially undiagnosed patients out there.”

Despite the current craze for hand sanitizer, soap and water works as well or better, Milum said. Otherwise, he recommended the same common-sense precautions that should always be used, at least during flu season: cough into your arm, not your hand; refrain from shaking hands or kissing cheeks in greeting, don’t touch your face if you can help it, clean doorknobs and other surfaces that get touched a lot, and stay home when you’re sick.

“We’ve been partnering very closely with Valley Regional Medical Center, who’s typically a competitor, but we work very well together when we’re preparing for a thing like this, because this is more about making sure patients are safe and everything else,” Milum said.

Kelli Nations, chief nurse executive for HCA’s Gulf Coast Division, of which VRMC is a part, said the hospital earlier conducted a drill for specifically this type of emergency. It involved HCA’s emergency operations command center, its corporate and Gulf Division offices, emergency medical services personnel and VBMC, she said.

“We acted as if we basically had COVID-19 patients,” Nations said. “We increased the volume surge 10 percent, then a 20 percent cap. We had all these different problems thrown at us. It was a great preparation that we did a little over a month ago to get ready for what we’re all experiencing now.”

She said she hopes testing kits become more widely available soon, but noted that it takes time to develop the kits because coronavirus is something new that hasn’t been dealt with before.

“We are in this situation partially because it so new,” Nations said. “It’s not just in part of the country. … They just truly cannot make enough test kits fast enough.”

She said VRMC is also screening visitors to the hospital and barring entry to anyone with flu-like symptoms aside from patients who meet the criteria for admission. But Nations said she wants residents to be assured that VRMC is ready for whatever comes.

“I want them to know that we prepared and we are here to preserve our community,” she said.

Trevino said Friday that the county is planning to set up its own emergency operations center on Monday. Meanwhile, city of Brownsville Public Health Director Art Rodriguez said the city is coordinating with county and state officials, and that it’s important for residents to get their coronavirus information from experts as opposed to social media rumors.

“We encourage citizens not to panic and to follow the government’s public health messaging,” he said. “It doesn’t help people when they’re panicking and don’t know who to believe.”

Cameron County Emergency Health Hotline: (956) 247-3650.