Officials watch for new wave as virus numbers still trending low

Better safe than sorry

Officials have their eyes warily trained on the horizon as the pandemic continues to abate in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Valley reported a total of 398 new cases and 27 new coronavirus-related deaths Thursday — 329 cases and 18 deaths in Hidalgo County, 63 cases and nine deaths in Cameron County, five new cases in Starr County and just one new case in Willacy County.

Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said the trend was encouraging, saying that what appeared to be a small bump in cases Wednesday was likely spurious and didn’t represent an actual spike.

“Those were old numbers being reported, and the same with the cases. We’re only testing about 300 people a day now, people are just not wanting to get tested anymore,” he said Thursday. “We were testing thousands. Remember we were doing about 8,000 a day; now we’re doing 200 or 300 max. I think yesterday, the numbers reported were closer to the low hundreds.”

Melendez recommended looking at hospitalization rates as a way to check the pulse of the pandemic’s progress in the Valley, which have fallen from a height of roughly 2,000 to 209 as of Thursday, 80 of whom are in ICU.

“You have to really look at the facts, the science, the numbers,” he said. “When the numbers at times are not consistent because of the different reporting capacities and the different agencies testing, then you have to look at the absolute numbers, and those absolute numbers are people in the hospital, people that are dying, people that are on ventilators. When you look at those numbers, they are certainly encouraging.”

There are other promising signs too, Melendez said. Hospitals, some of which have four or five COVID-19 units at the pandemic’s height, have retracted units. He also estimated that 10% of hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients now compared to 80% at the outbreak’s peak.

“It still is the leading medical problem that we have in the Valley, it’s still COVID, but it’s significantly better,” he said.

According to Melendez, health officials are closely watching two dates on the horizon: a week from now and mid-October, time periods Melendez says the Valley could potentially see spikes as the result of more in-person interaction.

“There’s two big issues that we’re really looking at. One is going to be next weekend maybe, say 14 days after the last holiday,” he said. “Two, as you know there’s a lot of schools that are going to be opening up on the 28th, the day after the order that was placed [until] the 27th. They’re going to open up gradually, but they’ll still be opening up, special needs kids and those families that want to go back. So I think those numbers will show increases, as everywhere else schools have opened up there’s been increases.”

Noting that the pandemic has ebbed and flowed in waves elsewhere, Melendez said testing and vigilance will remain important, along with social distancing and hygiene.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, but still strongly encouraging to do the best that you can. Only going out if you need to be, and if you do go out, make sure that you take the appropriate precautions,” he said.

That caution was echoed by other officials Thursday as well.

Gov. Greg Abbott conspicuously excluded the Valley from action Thursday loosening pandemic restrictions, saying it was among areas that are still “in the danger zone.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez agreed with the governor’s decision in a statement issued Thursday. 

“I cannot object to Governor Abbott’s decision to exclude Hidalgo County from relaxing some of his restrictions. I am encouraged that hospitalization rates locally are falling. But based on the advice of local experts, I have concluded, like the governor, that it may be premature to loosen additional restrictions,” he wrote. “That is why my latest order remains in effect until the end of this month, giving me time to better assess where we stand in Hidalgo County.”

In a statement, the judge urged residents to continue exercising caution in regard to the virus.

“My prayers and condolences go out to the families and friends of the 18 individuals,” he wrote. “To those currently battling this disease and who are at home, I urge you to remain quarantined so that you may not infect a loved one or anyone in our community.”