State health officials urge continued social distancing during holiday weekend

As the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 continues to rise, state health officials are urging South Texans to continue adhering to social distancing orders over the popular Easter weekend.

The plea comes as various stay-at-home orders stretch into their third week, giving local leaders their first glimpse into how effective those measures have been in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“I know that it’s hard, especially in these times of celebration. It’s Good Friday. It’s Easter weekend,” said Dr. Emily Prot, regional medical director for the Department of State Health Service’s Region 11 during a conference call with media Friday.

“We normally see lots of barbecues in parks. We normally see a lot of laughter and kids going out doing Easter egg hunts, but unfortunately, we have to do those in our homes without having the large family gatherings that we’re used to seeing all across the Valley,” Prot said.

But now, more than ever, Rio Grande Valley residents need to continue to stay home, Prot said. Nationwide, researchers have noticed trends emerging among those stricken by the virus. For instance, COVID-19 is causing higher rates of hospitalizations and fatalities among people of color.

“We know that our region is vulnerable. We know that we have a number of people that live paycheck to paycheck,” Prot said, adding that a significant number of Valley residents also have underlying health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure that can put them at increased risk for complications from COVID-19.

“These are all things that we need to really take into account with our preparedness and really, really … keep those messages of social distancing,” she said.

It’s taken time for residents to take shelter-at-home orders and other movement restrictions seriously, but 2 to 3 weeks in, more people are complying, Prot said. And that, in turn, will help health officials see if the measures are working to contain the virus. “All of these measures are going to help us really evaluate if the population, or community level, how we’re doing and how are we going to be hit here in the Valley.”

The virus’ incubation period of up to 14 days after exposure means it takes at least that long to measure the effectiveness of any mitigation measures.

That lengthy incubation period also makes it more difficult to forecast what the virus will do in the future. But researchers at universities across the country are actively working to develop forecast models, Prot said. Those universities include Texas’ own University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, along with Harvard University, the University of Washington and others.

The Valley has yet to see its peak infection rate, and those models disagree on when that day could be. “Right now, what we’re seeing is that some forecasts that the peak could occur maybe mid-April or early May. And some other models predict a delayed, but more prolonged impact,” Prot said.

Meanwhile, on Friday evening, Hidalgo County reported its largest single-day increase of people testing positive for COVID-19 at 35. Officials said 19 of those new cases are directly related to people who have previously tested positive for the virus, indicating the formation of distinct clusters.

As the numbers continue to rise, state health officials have begun to give the public its first glimpse into more detailed demographic data about those who test positive for the virus. Beginning this week, the DSHS has begun to list race and ethnicity data for people who test positive who have chosen to report such data.

With more than 10,000 people having tested positive in Texas as of Friday morning, Prot said public testing capabilities have reached their capacity. Texas will now rely largely on private testing.

Thus far, approximately 10% of those tested have tested positive. Prot said that figure is enough to allow health officials to successfully continue “public health surveillance.”

The main thing is to do public health surveillance so that we can identify cases and then put measures in place to mitigate the spread of coronavirus,” Prot said.