The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is increasing rapidly in Texas; as much is clear. But in the Rio Grande Valley, the rate of increase in cases is notably lower among its four counties than across the state, and according to the Department of State Health Services, the region’s pandemic response has a lot to do with it.
From April 10 to May 15 the total number of cases in the Valley increased by 137% compared to a statewide increase of 187% during that same time period.
Looking at a smaller time period, from April 13, the day after Easter, until Mother’s Day on May 10, the total number of cases in the Valley increased by 133%.
Throughout the state, though, the cases increased by 180% during that same stretch.
On April 10, the state had 0.38 cases per 1,000 people but by May 15, that had risen to 1.48 before jumping to 1.54 cases per 1,000 people the next day.
In the Valley, that average varied by county.
Cameron County reported the highest with 0.30 cases per 1,000 people on April 10, which rose to 1.18 cases by May 15.
In Hidalgo County, there were 0.15 cases per 1,000 on April 10 and 0.41 cases by May 15.
Willacy County had 0.19 cases per 1,000 people on April 10, rising to 0.52 cases on May 15.
The lowest was in Starr County where there were 0.10 cases per 1,000 on April 10, which rose to 0.23 cases on May 15. That number ticked up slightly on Saturday, May 16, to 0.25 cases per 1,000.
It’s unclear, though, what can be attributed to the lower rate of positive cases throughout the Valley than the state as a whole.
When looking at the amount of testing that’s been conducted here, the percentage of the population that has been tested is lower within at least two Valley counties than the overall state percentage.
Hidalgo County reported Friday that a total of 6,849 tests had been administered so far.
In Starr County, about 450 residents were tested for COVID-19 through the county’s drive-thru testing facility, and 215 were tested through the mobile testing sites there run by the Texas Military Department and the Texas Division of Emergency Management. This amounts to an approximate 650 tests in Starr.
The Texas Department of State Health Services has the Hidalgo County population at 1,005,539, which would make the rate of testing here at .68%.
Starr County’s rate is slightly higher at .94% with a population of 68,878, according to DSHS.
It’s unclear how many tests have been administered in Cameron or Willacy counties.
At the state level, with a population of 30,541,978 and a total number of tests at 678,471, the rate of testing is 2.2%.
“Definitely the number of tests that we have conducted in the Valley is far below the rest of the state,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, the Starr County health authority, referring to large cities such as Dallas, Houston or San Antonio.
He acknowledged that, generally, the Valley started off slow but has slowly picked up in the number tests administered.
“I can attest for Starr County, we know that we did start testing significantly earlier than the rest of the Valley communities and I think that’s why our numbers have remained significantly lower than other counties in our community,” he said.
“That and along with the fact that we have put in place a more aggressive, and a lot earlier, measures to try to contain and mitigate the disease.”
It’s important to note the percentage of the tests have come out positive.
For the state, that rate is at 6.9% while in Hidalgo County, the positive rate is only slightly lower at 6.2%.
In Starr County, with 13 positive cases coming out of the county’s testing site and the mobile sites there, that rate is significantly lower at 2%.
The remaining four positive cases from Starr County came from private clinics. It is unclear how many tests were administered there.
Because Starr has had very few positive cases, Vazquez said they’ve been fortunate that hospital systems there, and in the rest of the Rio Grande Valley, haven’t been overwhelmed like elsewhere throughout the country.
“At least we did not have to face a situation like they have had to do in New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and other large cities,” he said.
Dr. Emilie Prot, the medical director for DSHS Region 11, similarly pointed to the lack of hospitalizations in the area, noting that on Friday less than 20 in the region had been admitted into an intensive care unit.
“We’ve been trending behind the big metropolitan areas of Dallas and Houston but we’re doing very, very good,” Prot said. “We have hospitals that are prepared and we have capacity in our hospitals, even though we don’t have a lot.”
The number of positive cases the Valley has, she said, is not necessarily the number of hospitalizations, adding that is something health officials are keeping an eye on.
Prot also noted that the area is less dense but also that the region was leading in terms of implementing measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease.
“Laredo was the first in the U.S. to impose face masks in their community,” she said. “Also, we followed pretty much behind Dallas after their shelter-in-place or the shelter-at-home order, so we’ve been really proactive.”
By continuing to take precautions, Prot said the community could, little by little, open up in the proper way.
“So if we continue to really use all of the prevention measures — face masks, cleaning, safe distancing — we will get through this all together,” she said, “and I know we will be able to.”