Declining cases: Hospitalizations down in Valley medical centers

HARLINGEN — Hospitalizations are dropping at Rio Grande Valley hospitals, which remain near capacity with what a public health official called the region with the highest COVID-19 patient rate in Texas.

In late July, the Valley’s hospitals reached peak hospitalization rates amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area whose population suffers underlying medical complications stemming from some of the nation’s highest rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

Now, hospitalization rates are dropping along with new COVID-19 cases, apparently the result of residents more closely following federal guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, health officials said.

But health officials are warning a spike in cases could push the hospitals back into crisis.

On Thursday, Valley Baptist Medical Center’s intensive care unit remained three-fourth’s full, hospital officials said.

“We have seen a decline in the numbers of hospitalizations,” Dr. Jose Campo Maldonado, an infectious disease expert, said.

On July 22, the Valley’s hospitals peaked with 1,606 hospitalizations while the state’s total number of hospitalizations reached 10,893, he said.

By Tuesday, the Valley’s number of hospitalizations had dropped to 1,093, while Texas’ numbers fell to 7,216, he said.

At Valley Baptist, the hospital peaked with 131 COVID-19 patients in hospital beds, 40 in ICU beds and 54 patients awaiting test results on July 22, Campo Maldonado said.

On Tuesday at Valley Baptist, 84 COVID-19 patients filled hospital beds, the ICU held 42 patients and 21 patients awaited test results, he said.

“In general, the hospital is very busy,” Campo Maldonado said. “We still have a lot of cases.”

Meanwhile, about 170 members of the state’s medical strike force helped staff care for the caseload, hospital officials said.

In late June, Cameron County’s hospitals warned they were reaching capacity.

In response, the state sent medical strike teams to help care for patients amid area hospitals’ staff shortages.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans to convert the McAllen Convention Center and Harlingen’s Casa de Amistad into the state’s largest COVID-19 recovery centers as part of a plan to help hospitals free patient beds.

But as hospitalizations dropped, hospitals have transferred few patients to the facilities staffed with medical teams including doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.

Texas’ highest hospitalization rates

The Valley’s hospitalization rate stands as the highest in Texas, Josh Ramirez, Harlingen’s public health director, said.

“Based on population, I’m sure we’re the highest in the state for hospitalizations,” he said.

Some of the nation’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes lead to the Valley’s high numbers of hospitalizations.

“We have more obesity and diabetes,” Campo Maldonado said. “I think that plays a significant role.”

Obesity often leads to heart problems, Ramirez said.

New COVID-19 cases dropping

Now, new COVID-19 cases appear to be dropping.

At Valley Baptist, Campo Maldonado attributes the decline to residents more closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines aimed at curbing the virus’ spread, such as staying home, wearing facial coverings, social distancing and good hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing.

“I think people have improved their practices,” Campo Maldonado said.

Like Ramirez, Campo Maldonado is urging residents to continue to follow the guidelines aimed at curbing the virus’ spread.

“Because the number of hospitalizations has decreased, we can’t relax on the preventive measures we’re doing,” Campo Maldonado said. “At some point, we can have a relapse. Hospitalizations can go up at any time.”

Gatherings spurring new cases

At Harlingen City Hall, Ramirez attributes much of the early summer’s surge in cases leading to the hospitals’ crisis to gatherings celebrating Memorial Day and May graduations.

“We’re over the spike from the gatherings of Memorial Day and the graduations,” he said. “Now we’re seeing a little decline. But the COVID cases are still pretty active.”

Now, Ramirez believes Fourth of July celebrations could lead to a spike in cases.

“We believe the cases will increase from the Fourth of July celebrations,” he said. “We suspect there’s going to be an increase in cases very soon.”

A surge of new cases could lead to another hospital crisis.

“If you get a high number of cases, you are going to see an increase in the number of hospitalizations,” Campo Maldonado said. “There’s usually a delay — you first get a rise in the number of cases, then after the first week of illness, we have more people who get sicker and go to the hospital. On average, most people get worst after the first week.”

Factors behind Valley’s high numbers of cases

In the Valley, COVID-19 cases remain high — as does the death toll.

In Cameron County, public health officials reported a total of 17,316 cases as of Wednesday, according to County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.’s office.

Meanwhile, officials reported 397 COVID-19-related deaths as of Wednesday.

In Hidalgo County, officials reported a total of 20,431 cases as of Tuesday, along with a total of 849 COVID-19-related deaths.

The Valley’s poverty helps fuel new cases.

In one of the nation’s poorest regions, poverty often leads workers to take jobs such as service jobs which tend to expose them to others.

“Usually you have contact with a lot of people,” Campo Maldonado said.

In the Valley, many families live in cramped, multi-generational homes, an environment which can increase exposure to the virus, officials said.

The region’s poverty also helps fuel the death toll.

Amid the poverty, many residents lack health insurance, which leads many COVID-19-infected residents to seek medical care too late.