The Rio Grande Valley’s beautiful palm trees and coastal views are overshadowed these days by long COVID-19 testing lines and new faces from medical surge teams.
Texas is reporting alarming numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, and counties in the economically depressed valley are getting hit hard.
The health authority in Starr County told local news station KGRV that the number of hospital beds on paper do not reflect reality.
“There are no beds in the valley,” Dr. Jose Vazquez said. “We are becoming New York.”
Leader of the UTHealth COVID-19 testing site in Edinberg, Daniela Garza, confirmed this and said that ventilators are in short supply.
“That’s something that you’re hearing throughout the news here in the valley,” said Garza. “There’s only a double-digit number of respirators in the whole valley.”
Garza, who is native to the area, said that the valley is a big region, and it takes about an hour and half to travel between cities. This leaves the rural communities in between regions underserved.
“The colonias are kind of like the equivalency to the projects, it’s a very impoverished area,” said Garza. “I’ll speak to those patients, and they’re just doing their best at staying home.”
She explained that many of the residents in the colonias are essential workers and work mostly in the fields and in factories.
A Lot of Testing
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine has taken the lead in the fight against COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Dobbs, chief medical officer at UTRGV, told Reform Austin that the UT Health system has administered a remarkable number of tests in a short period of time.
“We are a major testing group,” said Dobbs. “We have tested more than 33,000 people in the region.”
He mentioned that the valley is geographically isolated from major cities, so in the past, that distance has slowed the pace of medical and health care resources. However, the federal government has sent surge teams with the goal of testing 5,000 people a day, Dobbs said.
Garza nods to this saying that she never thought she would see a pandemic of this scale happening in her hometown.
“I think this week, we unfortunately got the infamous attention with the federal government coming in to do massive testing at the Bert Ogden Arena,” said Garza. “We hit a record that matched up to big city numbers like Houston. We had 1,270-something patients test positive in just Hidalgo county!”
Garza said that the valley has a large youth population and reports seeing more youth, including some pediatric patients, testing positive than the 65-and-older patients.
Another vulnerability to the virus she said is the socioeconomic conditions.
“If you look at the socioeconomic conditions in the valley, one, we’re multigenerational homes,” said Garza. “You won’t just see parents and children [in households] you’ll see grandparents, you’ll see grandchildren and sometimes even great-grandchildren in a home.”
According to Garza, other major vulnerabilities include the obesity and diabetic crisis in the Rio Grande Valley, and the undocumented communities are not getting tested out of fear of being deported.
“Its always a thing that looms over the heads of people who are undocumented, ‘how much services can I really get? Am I safe going to these testing sites?’,” said Garza.
While the task of being on the front lines of the pandemic is daunting, Garza said, she is passionate about improving the health of her community and urges people to take all the necessary precautions.
“I just hope that everyone in the valley just knows how proud we all are to serve our community,” said Garza. “It’s just that, we hope that we do not have to be serving in this capacity forever.”