Worse to come: County death toll higher than reported

The official death count from COVID-19 in Cameron County is about to get a lot higher, according to Dr. James Castillo, public health authority for the county health department.

Speaking at a Monday county press conference, he said keeping an accurate, day-to-day tally has been hampered by the fact that doctors have been preoccupied with trying to save lives, leaving little time for paperwork, while health department staff — who still rely heavily on paper documents and faxes — have been overwhelmed.

“I’ve been saying that the number of deaths is going to lag the number of cases by a month or more,” Castillo said. “Our department, Cameron County Public Health, we have families too. We get sick too. We have not grown as the cases have grown. We’ve shrunk even.”

As of July 18, the official death count from COVID-19 stood at 96, but that doesn’t represent the actual number, he said. At the department’s request, the state sent in 20 temporary workers to help work through the backlog, Castillo said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the actual number of infections nationwide is probably 10 times higher than the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. That means Cameron County, which was at 5,891 total positive cases as of July 18, is more likely closer to 58,000 positive cases, Castillo said.

It means that in a crowd of more than 10 people, there’s a good chance at least one person is infected, he said. Add to that no masks or social distancing and you’ve got a recipe for spread, Castillo said.

“You can’t go to very many places without encountering this then,” he said. “You cannot be in crowds. … Because it’s so sneaky and a lot of spreaders don’t have symptoms. The virus doesn’t care. That’s what it takes advantage of.”

With the number of deaths is expected to be about 5 percent of total cases, approximately 300 people likely have died of COVID-19 or related complications in the county, Castillo said.

“We’re only reporting 96, and we’re going to be catching up on those very soon,” Castillo said. “Those numbers are going to be going up this week a lot…. The numbers you’re going to be seeing this week are weeks old. These are people who died at the end of June and throughout the month of July. There’s lots of people sick in the hospital right now, and I pray for them.”

County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said it’s vital for everyone to do their part in slowing the spread of the virus, by following the county’s mandates to wear facial coverings in public, practice social distancing, limit travel to essential business, shelter in place, obey curfews and wash hands frequently. He thanked county residents who are taking such precautions, but said many people still are not, which is hampering efforts to get the outbreak under control.

To drive home his point, on an overhead screen in commissioners court chambers Trevino played a brief video, posted on Facebook over the weekend by Clayton’s Beach Bar on South Padre Island, of a chartered party boat named Murphy’s Law making its way slowly past the bar with a large number of dancing, maskless revelers on board. Treviño said the video upset him “to the core” over the weekend.

“Those people on the boat are not following our mandate,” he said. “This is not a political issue. I don’t know how many times we have to tell people. The virus doesn’t care if you voted in the Democratic or Republican primary. It doesn’t care if you vote at all.”

It also doesn’t care about your age, ethnicity, tax bracket or line of work, Trevino said.

“It’s not slowing down because of the heat,” he said. “It’s not slowing down because there’s a presidential election at the end of the year. It’s not slowing down because it doesn’t care that our hospitals are at and beyond capacity. It’s not slowing down because our hospitals and health professionals are working 24/7.

“It’s not slowing down because our essential workers continue to extend themselves to do what’s necessary to provide for us, working at the supermarkets, at the convenience stores, driving truck, security, our first responders, our EMS, transporting people. The virus doesn’t care. Do you? Do you care?”

Treviño noted that the United States — with 4 percent of the world’s population but 23 percent of its COVID-19 cases — is leading in the pandemic “in the worst possible way.”

“That’s not a category that I want our country to be leading in,” he said. “The way our cases have exploded in Cameron County and the Rio Grande Valley is not something that I want the Valley to be leading in.”