Virus measures seen as effective; Officials warn of second wave threat

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevi–o Jr., center, holds a press conference Wednesday, May 6, 2020, with updates on all the precaustions being taken on COVID-19 in Cameron County. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

The message from Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. was clear during his Wednesday COVID-19 press conference: keep wearing that mask, even if the governor says you don’t have to.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s new order giving restaurants and retail stores permission to reopen at 25 percent occupancy also removes the authority of local jurisdictions to mandate wearing masks or facial coverings, making it optional instead. But Trevino, backed by Valley Baptist Health System President and CEO Manny Vela and VBHS physician adviser Christopher Romero, said masks are one reason the county isn’t seeing more COVID-19 cases, so people should keep wearing them — and keep social distancing and avoiding going out unless absolutely necessary.

Vela said the county saw what was happening in places like New York City and Seattle and took the right steps early on to prevent COVID-19 from spreading out of control here.

“ I think I can say with absolute confidence that Cameron County has been one of the most proactive — if not the most proactive — counties in regards to addressing the crisis that is COVID-19,” he said.

Vela said VBHS is well positioned to respond to a surge in the virus if it does happen, with a promise of backup from the state if necessary, “though the goal is not to have to put that to the test.”

The lesson over the last several weeks has been that social distancing, facial coverings and other precautions to protect the most vulnerable members of the community have worked, and it’s important not to abandon them now, he said.

“ We’re going to follow the governor’s mandate,” Vela said. “That’s absolutely our obligation, but there’s nothing wrong with us also being more conservative here locally and continuing down the path we’ve already taken for the last six weeks. … Until we completely shut the virus down, we’re not out of the woods.”

Romero presented a good news/bad news update at the press conference. The good news is that the county at the end of April had about half as many COVID-19 cases as models had predicted, and hospitals had roughly two and half times fewer cases than were forecast. He credited county leadership and public cooperation with measures to limit the spread of the virus.

The county has 17 percent cases per 1,000 people compared to Texas as a whole, and 37 percent fewer cases per 1,000 residents compared to Travis County, Romero said. The bad news is that the county has experienced outbreaks within vulnerable populations — namely two nursing homes in Harlingen — that put the county 12th in the state in terms of mortality per 1,000 residents even though we’re 18th in the number of cases per 1,000, he said.

Romero said Rio Grande Valley residents are particular vulnerable to a surge in COVID-19 because of the high incidence of diabetes, obesity and other health conditions that make up the top underlying causes of death in those who contract the virus.

“ It means that if we do see a big surge of this virus without our community, we could have some poor outcomes,” he said. “We have done well up to this point and it’s up to the public to take this seriously and continue to be responsible stewards of everybody’s health. Be conscientious when you’re out and about and abide by the guidelines.”

Treviño reported that as of Wednesday morning the county had 454 individuals who have tested positive for the virus, 334 negative tests results, 214 people who had cleared the virus and recovered, and 19 deaths.

“ Our testing is increasing slowly but surely,” Treviño said. “We are at approximately 5,800 tests countywide.”

Another 423 residents are being monitored in self-quarantine, he said, noting that county continues to see about 11 new cases daily. Statewide as of Wednesday morning, there were 33,369 cases and 906 deaths from COVID-19. Across the United States, there were 1.2 million cases and 72,287 deaths. With the facial covering/mask mandate now superseded by the governor’s order, the likelihood of a second surge essentially comes down to the percentage of residents continuing to exercise common sense, Trevino said.

“ Thankfully, based upon what I saw over the last two months I do have some faith in the great majority of the residents of Cameron County, because they did what we asked them to do, and many of them continue to do it to this point,” he said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com