Hidalgo Co. officials respond to recent surge of COVID-19 cases

Top row: Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and Criminal District Attorney Chief of Civil Division Josephine Ramirez-Solis. Bottom row: Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo Olivarez, Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez and Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña. Various Hidalgo County officials came together Thursday morning to update the community on the recent, notable spike of COVID-19 activity, how the county is counting positive cases and details on a vaccine for the coronavirus. (Screengrab)

Various Hidalgo County officials came together Thursday morning to update the community on the recent, notable spike of COVID-19 activity, how the county is counting positive cases and details on a vaccine for the coronavirus. 

“I decided to call a press conference one week before Thanksgiving to sound another warning,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said during the virtual event. “If we let our guard down, more of us are going to get sick and more of us are going to die.”

Joining Cortez in the Facebook Live event were fellow county officials: Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo Olivarez, Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña and Criminal District Attorney Chief of Civil Division Josephine Ramirez-Solis.

“We are here today to discuss the reality we have been warning you about for the last several weeks,” Cortez said. “Our new case numbers are going up, and it could not be at a worse time.”

Olivarez noted during the event that Hidalgo County has been under 260 days of emergency center operations “and we still have a lot to continue and a lot to do in the months to come — yes, the months to come.” 

For the first two weeks of November, the number of positive cases were in the range of 200 or below. However, beginning this week, there’s been a surge of cases. On Monday, the county reported 167 cases, followed by 426 cases on Tuesday, then 681 on Wednesday. 

Thursday, the county reported 679 new positive cases of the virus and seven additional deaths related to COVID-19. 

The last time Hidalgo County reported a massive spike like this week’s was Aug. 26, reporting 655 cases that day. Regarding the recent spikes, Cortez noted it’s been two weeks since Halloween and Election Day gatherings. 

While the country’s death toll surpassed 250,000 a few days ago, Cortez also noted during the event that Hidalgo County’s death toll surpassed the 2,000 mark; as of Thursday, the county’s death toll increased to 2,022.

“(That’s) 2,000 of our family, friends, neighbors, who have lost their lives to this terrible virus,” Cortez said. “Yet, we continue to see evidence that people in Hidalgo County are acting like this virus no longer affects us.” 

Cortez said they’ve seen videos on social media of local businesses holding Halloween gatherings “packed with people not wearing masks.” 

“The real sad part of this,” Cortez said, “the vast majority of these new cases have occurred to those in their 40s and below. Those in their 20s represent the largest increase of all new cases.” 

However, Cortez noted 90% of those aged 50 or older are the ones succumbing to the virus. 

Putting it another way, Cortez said, “The younger people in our community are actively going out, actively ignoring warnings to stay home and are getting infected and taking the virus home to other family members. 

“That’s just tragic,” he stated. 

While members of the community are asking for a shutdown and new restrictions to stop large gatherings, Cortez said, “No amount of government restrictions are going to save you from ourselves. This must involve people changing their behavior.” 

Though officials know some people are behaving responsibly and have seen an increase in the use of facial coverings, Cortez said they are also seeing more people behave irresponsibly too. 

“There is no excuse for all the Halloween gatherings and all those people packed in a room without masks,” Cortez said. “We are now suffering the results.” 

“We must change our habits,” Cortez added as he listed off what individuals should be doing: staying home if there’s no need to venture out, continuing to wear facial coverings, washing hands and avoiding crowds. 

“If we don’t change our behavior, I fear that the effect of Halloween has had on our infection rate will be pale in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Cortez said.

LOOKING CLOSER

Regarding their COVID-19 statistics, Olivarez discussed in-depth how the county is looking at the numbers. 

Prior to the event, Hidalgo County reported 679 new positive cases of the virus and seven additional deaths related to COVID-19. 

The total number of known positive cases in the county is 39,366, with 2,271 active cases. 

In hospitalizations, officials reported there were a total of 167 individuals in county hospitals, with 68 patients in intensive care units. 

Additionally, 619 individuals were released from isolation Thursday, raising the total number of those released to 35,073. 

Olivarez discussed in-depth how the county is looking at the numbers, explaining the method for documenting and assessing cases is different today than it was two weeks ago, and as far as six months ago. 

The reason for this, Olivarez further explained, is because the state asks the county to follow the Epi Case Criteria guidelines, which change periodically due to the response to the pandemic.

Citing Thursday’s numbers, Olivarez said out of the 679 cases reported, 162 are “new” while 517 are “old.”

What this means, according to Olivarez, is that the 162 new cases are within the 14-day infectious period, while the old cases are from the state’s data. 

“What we’re doing is we are getting all our data and inputting those confirmed cases in our system, they have to be accounted for,” Olivarez said. “Those older cases are confirmed COVID cases that may be a few days old or as late as July or August because that data is just arriving to us due to the methodology the state uses or we are catching up with some of the backlog.” 

Despite this clarification of “new” vs “old” cases, Olivarez said that shouldn’t be the focus. Instead, he said, the focus should be the fact that these cases are back in the community. 

“We are not in any way in a panic mode,” Melendez said regarding the cases. “We are in a mode of understanding the numbers, understanding the situation and with this knowledge, having the power to do something about the scenario.”

As the numbers dramatically increase, Melendez explained this is creating an understandable and expected response from the community. 

Melendez said there are three reasons numbers are increasing: 1) cases are more inclusive on different studies, 2) a different subset of people are testing and 3) the county is catching up on a backlog. 

Previously, the county was only using one COVID-19 test: the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. Now, as of several days ago according to Melendez, Hidalgo County is using the other two testing methods. 

“Therefore, those numbers are obviously going to go up because we’re being more inclusive,” Melendez stated. 

Secondly, Melendez said the subset of people being tested now is different than it was in July. 

In July, Melendez said, everyone was getting tested, “and rightfully so,” out of fear and the access to universal testing. However, in November, Melendez said most of the testing is from people with symptoms or those who were in close contact with someone infected. 

“The subset of people that are being tested are much more likely to test positive,” he said. 

Lastly, the county is still catching up on counting cases.

Melendez did not attribute this to incompetence or any other factor, but rather said the numbers are so dramatic, “that we’re just getting information funneled to us from the state agencies that we have to incorporate in our counting.”

“Reason for concern? Absolutely,” Melendez said. “Reason for alarm? No.” 

Though the increase in numbers is dramatic and the county is not where it should be, Melendez said the good news is Hidalgo County is significantly better than it was several months ago. 

“The bad news is that we are far away from what we consider acceptable,” Melendez said. 

He continued to explain hospitalizations are happening in “twosies” and “threesis.” Melendez explained this means people are being admitted together: a mother and her daughter, a father and a son, etc. 

“We’re definitely seeing community spread,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing family members that are infecting other family members and are being admitted simultaneously.”

At a unit he visited last week, Melendez said there were two patients. On Thursday, he said there were 19. In another unit, which Melendez said was the largest unit in a different, unspecified hospital, he said there were previously 19 patients. Now, there are 35. 

“Stay informed,” Melendez answered when asking what we, the population, could do. “Try to understand that all of us are fatigued from COVID and the information. Do not turn a (deaf) ear when you hear the word ‘COVID’, because you’ve heard it before.” 

‘SCHOOL CASES’

Olivarez also addressed “school cases” during the discussion. 

“There is now testing that is going to be made available for our school districts,” Olivarez said, leading the conversation into the different types of testing being conducted. 

The PCR test, which is a nasal or oral COVID-19 exam, has a 95% accuracy rate, Olivarez said. If the results return positive, it’s considered confirmed. 

The antigen tests, or “rapid” tests such as the Sofia, are conducted by swabbing the nose to detect a protein on the virus and are considered less accurate. 

“Before, you had to have been symptomatic for it to be counted as a case,” Olivarez explained regarding the antigen test results. “Now the state is saying — effective Nov. 1 — if you’re positive on the antigen with symptoms or without symptoms, then you will be considered a probable case and it needs to be counted.”

Shifting the focus to the Valley, Olivarez said this impacts the region because all 16 school districts here will be utilizing the antigen test kits over the next several weeks and into the new year. If these tests return positive, Olivarez said they will be counted. 

As of Thursday morning, Olivarez said there were 325 confirmed student and staff positive cases countywide, with official confirmation from schools. 

“And that’s because they have not had full activity in their schools,” Olivarez said. “That’s the biggest challenge we’ve got, and you will see a change in that and how we track that.” 

THE VACCINE

The other challenge Hidalgo County faces is how they will distribute the vaccine for COVID-19. 

“The vaccine is a preventative tool, it is not a cure,” Olivarez emphasized. “The vaccine will start taking place in December into January.”

Olivarez said the state will determine who will be the first to get the vaccine, which will be limited and is being targeted for essential personnel: first responders, medical staff and healthcare professionals. 

Senior citizens or people with compromised illnesses may be considered essential as well, Olivarez said. That, however, is still being determined, and those populations will be identified in the days to come.  

It’s worth nothing that the official Twitter for Hidalgo County wrote, “In Jan-Feb we should see the vaccine available to everyone.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE VALLEY 

In Starr County, officials reported 33 new positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, raising the number of active cases to 327. 

Additionally, the county reported 3,660 people have recovered from the virus. The death toll in Starr County remains at 187.  

In Willacy County, the Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed 11 additional positive cases on Thursday, raising the total number of cases reported there to 1,291. 

The ages of the new cases range from a child between 2 and 9 years old to people in their 60s. 

In Cameron County, officials reported 88 new cases of COVID-19 and two deaths related to the virus on Thursday, raising the death toll there to 1,108.

Additionally, the county reported 58 individuals have recovered from the virus, raising the total number of those reported to have recovered to 22.872. 

As of Thursday, the total number of known positive cases in Cameron County is at 25,396.