Catching up: County working through virus numbers backlog

On its face, the numbers are alarming: 2,328 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 29 additional deaths in Cameron County between July 27 and July 30.

At a county press conference Friday, officials said the jump from 7,827 to 10,155 new cases and 177 to 206 deaths during the period shows that the virus is pervasive in the county, though it also reflects a backlog created by the sheer backlog of reports and investigations the county public health department must wade through. Officials began warning over a week ago that cutting through the backlog would result in higher numbers of cases and deaths.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said the department is getting caught up on confirmed new cases — thus Thursday’s hair-raising announcement of 731 new cases — but is further behind on an up-to-date death tally because confirming cause of death is a more complicated process. So far in the county, 85,426 residents have been tested, he said.

Trevino reported that the county’s four hospitals are at 85 capacity for non-intensive care COVID-19 beds, and 120 percent capacity for intensive-care COVID-19 beds. A temporary, 100-bed, step-down care facility for recovering virus patients should be operational in Harlingen by Monday, he said.

Health department Administrator Esmeralda Guajardo said that as the number of testing sites and the volume of testing increased in the county, her department’s small staff became overwhelmed. A request to the state for assistance resulted in a team of epidemiologists and data processors being sent in to plow through the backlog, she said. It has allowed the department to streamline the process to the point where it will be able to report new case numbers in real time as early as Monday, Guajardo said.

Esmeralda Guajardo, Public Health Administrator for Cameron County, explains how her department have been coping with the backlog of COVID-19 cases and death reports Friday during a press conference at the Cameron County Commissioner’s Court(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“However I do want to point out that this does not take away the fact that we are still seeing a large number of cases every day,” she said.

County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo said the state has begun real-time, online reporting of COVID-19 deaths by county, based solely on death certificates registered with the state by medical examiners. The county, however, is required to do its own investigation of each death to confirm whether it’s virus-related, he said.

“The county health department has an obligation to investigate deaths related to reportable diseases like COVID,” Castillo said. “Our numbers are going to be based on reviewing the medical records and looking at all of the data to make sure it’s a confirmed case, and then we’ll certify it as our official numbers for the county.”

He added that the state’s numbers are consistent with what the county has been telling people to expect in terms of an increase in the number of deaths.

“We’re reporting over 200 and the state is much higher than that, almost at 300, and that’s about what we’ve been expecting,” Castillo said.

He said the county’s hospitals are “holding steady” thanks to a great amount of effort on the part of their medical and support teams as well as outside help from the Navy and temporary relief personnel.

“That’s good news but we can’t let our guard down,” Castillo said.

Construction continues Friday as Casa de Amistad in Harlingen is converted into a temporary “step-down” care facility for patients recovering from COVID-19 in Cameron County. The facility is expected to open soon and will help free up hospital beds for patients who need more acute care.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

That means everyone needs to continue to abide by county and state mandates related to facial coverings in public, social distancing, hygiene, sheltering in place and curfews, he said.

“And be very, very vigilant about family gatherings.,” Castillo said. “We’re still seeing that as a major source of infection for people who end up in the intensive care unit. People who are most vulnerable are getting it from family members and getting very sick and being put on breathing machines in ICU. The outcomes for those patients in general have not been good.”