Overworked And Undersupplied: Rio Grande Valley Struggles Through Raging COVID-19 Pandemic | Texas Public Radio

Overworked And Undersupplied: Rio Grande Valley Struggles Through Raging COVID-19 Pandemic

Jul 24, 2020

It’s just after midnight and Dr. Ivan Melendez still has several hours to go before he finishes his shift at a hospital in Hidalgo County. 

It’s been nonstop. 

Next up, he has to call the wife of a COVID-19 patient who just tried to take out his own ventilator.


“He’s super, super confused because he keeps taking his machine off, so we’re going to put someone in there to watch him,” Melendez tells her. “We’ve given him some increased medications, but he’s not in any position to be pulling the apparatus off; he almost died tonight.”

Texas is one of the states across the U.S. with a massive surge of coronavirus cases and the Rio Grande Valley is one of the biggest hotspots. Inside The Valley, Hidalgo County is its own hotspot and hospitals in the region are straining. Doctors say the situation is getting worse by the day. 

“When you talk to him tomorrow make sure to remind him that he has to keep it on,” he tells the wife on the line. “No you can’t stay with him because it’s very strict here, even unfortunately for people that are going to heaven they don’t let people come in.”

Not only is Melendez an overworked doctor, but he’s also Hidalgo County’s Health Authority and he himself just recovered from COVID-19.

The county had its first confirmed coronavirus case on March 21

Local officials had it under control, he said, with a stay-at-home order, masks and other local mandates. 

Melendez said when Gov. Greg Abbott reopened the state on May 1 —  that’s when problems mushroomed.

People don't follow social distancing and mask recommendations while watching the sunset from the west end of South Padre Island.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio

“In between March 21 and May 1, our peak was 37 people at the hospital, 12 deaths, I think we peaked at about 14 people on ventilators and we probably peaked around 16 in the ICU,” said Melendez.

He says things now are beyond control.

“We went from 12 deaths in two and a half months to 49 deaths alone yesterday,” he said. “We went from two to three people ventilated and now we have about 150 on ventilators.”

Melendez said there are more than 1,100 people in hospital beds that have COVID-19 in Hidalgo County and hospitals across the Rio Grande Valley are near or at capacity. He said officials have brought-in refrigerated trucks for bodies.

This week, the county issued a shelter-at-home order, but they’re prevented from enforcing it because local governments are not allowed to override state mandates.

The region has long struggled with high levels of diabetes, obesity and poverty — issues that increase the risk of dying from COVID-19.

Elected officials and health experts say many transmissions in the area come from people infecting their family members, either while living together in multigenerational homes where it might be difficult to social distance, or transmitting the virus when visiting relatives. 

Some families in this part of Texas are also mixed status.

Sidronia, who only wanted her first name used because she’s undocumented, is with her church group outside the Mission Medical Center. The group of about 20 people gathered to pray for the people and medical staff inside.

Congregants from La Iglesia Restaurando Almas Para El Reino de Dios pray, sing and hold up signs in support of those sick with COVID-19 at McAllen Medical Center.
Credit Michael Treviño | Texas Public Radio

“You know what would make me happy?” she asks. “If I had papers so that I could have a good paying job.”

She said she is struggling to pay for her medications and her rent and that she has high blood pressure and diabetes and. 

Sidronia said she usually makes and sells tamales, but there’s no one to sell them to now because of the pandemic. She, like many other undocumented residents, is not able to receive unemployment.

“If I get it I don’t have money. I don’t have anyone, what will my grandson do, what will my daughter do by themselves?” she asks. “My daughter also doesn’t have documents.”

She said she asks God to protect them.

During the pandemic in the Rio Grande Valley several community organizations have stepped up to help their community.

This week La Union Del Pueblo Entero was able to give out food and supplies where cars could drive up and pick up the items.

LUPE organizers and volunteers distribute foodstuffs and cleaning supplies to a line of cars in San Juan, Texas.
Credit Michael Treviño | Texas Public Radio

“We’re giving out Pampers (diapers), we’re giving our hand sanitizer, a lot of hand sanitizer,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox the executive director of LUPE. “We’re giving out rice, we’re giving out beans.”

Martha Sanchez, with LUPE, helped pass out some of the items. She said she’s glad to help, but also worries about life after COVID-19.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of effort again to lift them up and to make it a little more equal because right now this COVID came to put us much more well behind everybody else in the country,” said Sanchez. 

Martha said they also dropped off supplies at the homes of essential workers, people who tested positive for the virus and those who don’t have transportation.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez has also asked state and federal agencies for any help his county can get. 

“Help me test, help me get the information back as soon as possible, educate our people how to take care of themselves if they’re isolated at home and help businesses operate safely,” he said. “We need more doctors, we need more nurses, we need more technicians, we need more supplies.”

Cortez said his county has received some support from the state and federal government, but needs much more to survive this COVID-19 surge.

Elected officials continue to call on Gov. Abbott to lock down parts of the state, like the Rio Grande Valley. 

Gov. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bonnie Petrie, Dominic Anthony Walsh, Fernanda Camarena and Michael Treviño contributed to this story.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos.

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