Willacy virus death rate ranks among highest

RAYMONDVILLE — Within four summer days, Lyford Mayor Wally Solis buried his wife and her two cousins after they died of complications stemming from the coronavirus.

On July 14, his wife Juanita was 65 when she died of pneumonia after contracting COVID-19, Solis said Thursday.

Solis said her two first cousins also died of complications after contracting the virus.

“On Friday we buried my wife. On Saturday we buried her first cousin. On Monday, we buried another first cousin of my wife,” he said. “It hurts. There are complications. The virus is contributing to the deaths.”

The COVID-19-related deaths were among 44 confirmed in Willacy County, a rural farming area with a population of about 22,000.

Based on its population, the county’s death toll ranks as the 10 th- highest in the United States, the third-highest in Texas and the highest in the Rio Grande Valley, Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said Thursday.

“Our demographic is not good for this type of virus,” County Judge Aurelio Guerra told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

The area’s high rates of obesity and diabetes are leading factors behind the death toll, Dr. Mario Sanchez, the county’s health authority, said.

“We need to be aware this virus is deadly. We’ve lost a lot of people. We’ve lost a lot of friends,” Sanchez said. “We’re a target for the virus. We’re more prone. Here in the Valley, it has a lot to do with obesity and diabetes.”

Even as new cases of the coronavirus drop in Willacy County, county leaders urged residents to take precautions to avoid another spike in the infection rate.

“I don’t want people to lose the focus on this virus,” Guerra said.

Cases dropping

In Willacy County, state health officials had confirmed 1,146 total cases with 44 deaths, according to figures released during Wednesday’s press conference.

Since April, 614 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at seven of the county’s health clinics, Sanchez said, noting those numbers help make up the county’s total case count.

Across the county and the Rio Grande Valley, as in much of the United States, the number of new COVID-19 cases is dropping.

Last week in Willacy County, the seven clinics reported a total of seven residents testing positive, Sanchez said.

“It’s really going down,” he said. “That’s very positive for us.”

Sanchez believes the drop in cases is the result of residents taking precautions to curb the spread of the virus.

Stressing safety guidelines

During the press conference, local leaders urged residents to follow federal safety guidelines including maintaining six-foot social distancing, wearing facial coverings and practicing good hygiene such as frequent hand-washing.

Residents who wear facial coverings are six times less likely to contract the virus, Sanchez said.

“It’s to protect us but more to protect those around us,” he said.

Like other counties, Guerra has issued an order limiting gathering sizes to 10 or less residents.

During the press conference, Sanchez said outdoor gatherings pose fewer health risks.

“In open air there’s less of a chance of infection,” he said.

Meanwhile, he warned against indoor gatherings in rooms lacking adequate ventilation.

Schools re-opening

Across the county, schools’ re-opening with on-line learning has not posed a health risk, Sanchez said.

Meanwhile, some students whose homes lack internet access have returned to classrooms.

At the Raymondville school district, officials have separated about 200 students into groups of three to five assigned to about 70 classrooms.

“They’re very well spread,” Sanchez, who is helping to oversee the district’s re-opening, said. “I think we’ll be OK.”

On Sept. 21, the Texas Education Agency is re-opening classroom instruction in schools in which parents will decide whether their children will be taught in class or will remain at home learning on-line.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com