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Sen. Hinojosa, Gov. Abbott, and other Texas leaders will continue helping protect Valley medical professionals, first responders, and fellow South Texans during COVID-19 emergency - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured, from left: Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Carlos Cárdenas, MD, Chairman, Board of Managers, DHR Health; and Chris Rivera, Chief Executive Officer, Rio Grande Regional Hospital. They are shown here on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance for the COVID-19 Health Care Forum, which was part of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Live Stream. 

Photograph By NAYELI ZENTEÑO

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Sen. Hinojosa, Gov. Abbott, and other Texas leaders will continue helping protect Valley medical professionals, first responders, and fellow South Texans during COVID-19 emergency

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Praising the courageous efforts of medical professionals in the Rio Grande Valley who are battling the national COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, says Texas government at the highest level is working mightily to meet the needs of deep South Texas.

“Our frontline health care workers, our doctors, nurses, medical personnel, they are under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress, yet they are doing an excellent job,” Hinojosa said on Sunday, July 19, 2020, during a video news conference organized by Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz. 

Residents of the four-county Rio Grande Valley are not alone in their fight against COVID-19, especially with the region, as of Monday, July 20, 2020, reporting that since late March 2020, as many as 20,000 residents have tested positive for the contagious illness, the state senator said.

“We have seen what is happening here in the Valley. As a State, we have responded. We have sent 624 medical personnel – nurses – to our hospitals here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hinojosa said. “For us (State), we continue to monitor the situation here in the Valley, and if any additional assistance is needed, we’ll respond. We’re here to help the general public, we’re here to help our first responders, and Gov. (Greg) Abbott, on the Texas Emergency Management Division, is always ready and willing to respond to any emergency that we may have here in the Valley, and we will do just that.”

COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Infected people have had a wide range of symptoms reported – from mild symptoms to severe illness and even death.

“Quite frankly, the challenges we face are varied, from making sure that we are keeping our state’s unemployment benefits fund solvent to pay unemployment benefits to our workers who have lost their jobs, making sure that we have loans available to many of our businesses that have closed down, making sure that we fund our daycare centers so that parents can have a place they can leave their children in the event they go back to work,” said Hinojosa, who serves as Vice-Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance.

The Senate Committee on Finance proposes the state Senate’s version of the Texas state budget and works with the House Committee on Appropriations, which develops its own proposed state budget, to present a final state budget for approval by the majority of the 181-member Texas Legislature. The governor is allowed to sign the bill into law. The governor also has the power of line-item veto, where only parts of the budget are rejected.

The state senator, whose Senate District 20 runs from Hidalgo County to Nueces County, said Texas is spending $35 million a week providing resources to different hotspots in Texas, not just the Rio Grande Valley.

Hinojosa reported that on or about Friday, July 24, 2020, area COVID-19 hospital patients whose conditions have improved but are still not ready to return home, will continue to receive needed medical care, but away from the hospitals, in order to keep available the medical centers’ life-saving resources for the most seriously-ill coronavirus patients.

“We have at least one or two hotels online which will be ready to go by Friday (July 24, 2020) that will be able to transition some of the patients who are recovering, but no longer need extensive care,” Hinojosa announced. “They will have their own room, bathroom, air conditioning, their own TV, so we’re working to make sure we have the (hospital) capacity needed to take care of (the most seriously-ill) patients,” he said.

Hinojosa urged all residents to follow the medical guidance of local, state, and national health care professionals on how to help significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“The governments cannot do it by ourselves. We need the cooperation and help from our communities. We need to help to protect our families, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, but also help with our neighbors, with our friends, by keeping our distance, and respecting distance,” Hinojosa said. “Many times we don’t realize that just a few simple health advice from our health experts is important, like wear our masks. It’s so important that I sometimes wonder why there is so much opposition to it. It’s simple.”

Valley lawmakers have successfully requested help from Abbott, among numerous other state and federal officials, for ongoing critical help, including bringing a Navy medical acute care team from the U.S. government “to help our doctors and our nurses and medical professionals here in the Valley.”

On Sunday, July 19, 2020, Abbott announced that the U.S. Department of Defense had sent five U.S. Navy teams to four locations in South and Southwest Texas to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Beginning on that date, one U.S. Navy Acute Care Team would provide support at the Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen and four U.S. Navy Rural Rapid Response Teams would support hospitals in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Rio Grande City.

These teams consist of medical and support professionals who are being deployed to help meet medical needs in hospitals throughout the state.

“The support from our federal partners is crucial in our work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our communities throughout Texas,” said Abbott. “I am grateful for this ongoing partnership with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy, and the State of Texas will continue to utilize every resource available to protect public health and keep Texans in every community safe.”

HIDALGO COUNTY JUDGE CORTEZ: “LOCKING DOWN PEOPLE, LOCKING DOWN BUSINESSES, IN ITSELF NOT THE SOLE ANSWER.”

During his opening remarks during the Sunday, July 19, 2020 video news conference, the Hidalgo County judge told viewers, “I come to you this afternoon not only with a heavy heart but with a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for our future. The heavy heart comes from the fact that again, today, we are going to report that over a 1,000 of our citizens have tested positive for this virus, and unfortunately, another 17 fatalities. This, is of course, a concern to all of us.”

Joining the state senator and the county judge during the Sunday, July 19, 2020 video news conference were Iván Meléndez, MD, the Hidalgo County Health Authority, and Víctor González, MD. 

A Health Authority in Texas, such as Meléndez, is a physician appointed to administer state and local laws relating to public health within an appointing body’s jurisdiction. Health Authorities are considered an officer of the state when performing duties to implement and enforce laws that protect the public’s health.

Cortéz reflected how the COVID-19 pandemic has reached so many Valley residents in just the past four months.

“Who would ever think back on March 21, (2020), when we had the first incident of someone testing positive, that Hidalgo County would be caught in this pandemic with these tragic numbers of people infected, and the impact it had on our businesses and our people,” Cortéz said. “This morning (Sunday, July 19, 2020), as we were traveling and moving one of our refrigerated trucks to Weslaco, to be used as a morgue, we passed by a flea market. That flea market was full of people. Last night (Saturday, July 18, 2020), we received information about a lot of partying going on at some of our businesses, establishments.”

One of the purposes of featuring physicians Meléndez and González in the video news conference was to help viewers know what to do if COVID-19 reaches their home.

“I’m going to tell you that locking down people, locking down businesses, in itself is not the sole answer. It’s going to take a combination of several things,” the county judge said. “One of the things that we are finding out is when a member of the family is diagnosed with positive COVID and is not sick enough to be in the hospital and stay at home, they’re infecting the majority of the other family members. Either they don’t know how to care for themselves, how to take precautions.”

Hinojosa said the COVID-19 pandemic is an emergency unlike “any of us have ever experienced anything like this in our lifetime,” but is confident that the nation will overcome the growing catastrophe.

“I’m optimistic because now, we finally have gotten very much focused to work together as a team. We’re more organized, the cooperation is unbelievable, so we can maximize our resources from the federal government, our state, county, and our hospitals,” Hinojosa said. “We’ve gotten through many disasters in our lives, and in history, and we’ll get through this by being confident, having faith, and believing in ourselves and protecting ourselves,” Hinojosa said.

The video of the Sunday, July 19, 2020 video news conference is available at:

LIVE: County Judge Richard F. Cortez is joined by Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Dr. Ivan Melendez, and Dr. Victor Gonzalez. They will discuss the latest information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted by Hidalgo County on Sunday, 19 July 2020

DHR HEALTH URGES RECOVERED COVID-19 PATIENTS TO DONATE PLASMA TO HELP TREAT SERIOUSLY-ILL CORONAVIRUS VICTIMS IN VALLEY HOSPITALS

In a related development, on Monday, July 20, 2020, DHR Health and the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development again emphasized the need for plasma donors. DHR Health is seeking recovered COVID-19 to help right the SARS-CoV-2 virus by donating convalescent plasma to help treat patients in hospitals throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

“It is important for the community to understand that the plasma obtained from donors in the Valley will remain in the region for treatment of patients with severe and life-threatening COVID-19”, said Sohail Rao, MD, MA, DPhil, President and CEO, DHR Health Institute for Research and Development.

With no known drug or treatment available to fight COVID-19, DHR Health and DHR Health Institute for Research and Development is turning to recovered patients to help give those currently hospitalized and experiencing life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19 the best option to fight the virus.  A single plasma donation can provide plasma for up to four COVID-19 patients, in a process that takes about an hour and a half total.

Those who are interested in donating plasma are being asked to call the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development. Donors will be asked a series of questions before being asked to go in for an antibody test. In order to be considered eligible, requirements such as being 18 years of age or older, having a prior verified diagnosis of COVID-19 via nasal swab test, is fully recovered, and 28 days symptom-free from a positive test, must be met. Donors will then be sent to an area blood bank and compensation will be provided to those who are eligible.

For more information about how you can donate plasma or get more information about the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development, call (956) 362-2390 or visit, http://www.dhrresearch.org.

Anchored in southwest Edinburg, with a growing presence in neighboring McAllen, DHR Health offers some of the most comprehensive medical care on the U.S. southern border, with more than 1,400 nurses and 600+ physicians providing care in 70+ specialties and sub-specialties.

DHR Health is the flagship teaching hospital for the UTRGV School of Medicine and encompasses a general acute hospital with the only dedicated women’s hospital South of San Antonio, a rehabilitation hospital, a behavioral hospital, more than 70 clinics Valley-wide, advanced cancer services, the only transplant program in the Rio Grande Valley – and the only functioning 24/7 Level 1 Trauma Center south of San Antonio.

DHR Health is headquartered on a 130-acre site, with most of the facilities in southwest Edinburg but with a growing South Campus immediately across Owassa Road in northwest McAllen.

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: “WE STAND READY WITH ALL OF THE MEASURES WE HAVE PUT IN PLACE, AND WE ARE DOING OUR PART.”

Earlier in July, during a public forum which also included Hinojosa, and held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, Carlos Cárdenas, MD, Chairman, Board of Managers, DHR Health, said the medical profession worldwide continues to better understand COVID-19.

“We’ve learned a lot of things about how to treat patients, and we know that trying to avoid, for as long as possible, putting someone on a ventilator, helps in the recovery of that person to the degree that we can help them,” he explained. “Lying them on their stomach in the prone position is something else that we’ve learned early on that really helps these patients. There are things we are learning about this every single day. That research is, of course in this age of digital media, we’ve been able to communicate with centers across the Valley, state, nation, and the world, for that matter, to learn from each other, from the experience of other populations, that we can apply here.”

At that Tuesday, July 1, 2020 event, Cárdenas and Hinojosa were joined by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, Lance Ames, Chief Executive Officer, Edinburg Regional Medical Center, and Edinburg Children’s Hospital, Cris Rivera, Chief Executive Officer, Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen, and John H. Krouse, MD, Ph.D., MBA, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Dean, UTRGV School of Medicine.

Former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, now the Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, served as the moderator for the Tuesday, July 1, 2020 forum, which was coordinated by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Live Stream.

“But we stand ready with all of the measures we have put in place, and we are doing our part. I think it’s appropriate to ask the public to do their part. Follow the rules that we’ve been talking about. For those of you who remember what a vinyl record is, I sound like a broken record when I tell you to wash your hands, wear a face covering, maintain social distancing, limit yourself to activities that are essential, and don’t congregate, don’t come together,” Cárdenas said. “For the Valley, that’s difficult, because we are a pachanga culture. It’s very difficult, and I understand that. But we need to do these things because these are the measures that we can all use to help us control what’s very rapidly unfolding in front of us.”

In South Texas, a pachanga is a party that usually involves barbeque, music, family, friends, and outdoor cooking.

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Highlights of Cárdenas’ key comments during the Tuesday, July 1, 2020 video news conference, which has been edited for content, follow:

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES
VICE PRESIDENT FOR GOVERNMENTAL
AND COMMUNITY RELATIONS
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS RIO GRANDE VALLEY

Dr. Cárdenas, how are things over at DHR?

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD
CHAIRMAN, BOARD OF MANAGERS
DHR HEALTH

First, let me say thank you for having us here this morning, and I share with my colleagues the real concern that we have moving forward through the COVID pandemic. We prepared for this – DHR, we were prepared, and we prepared early by creating a separate ER (emergency room) facility where we would see strictly people with respiratory symptoms (fever, cough, and shortness of breath), and determine who had COVID and who had not. In addition, we were able to convert a unit and retrofit it, and make it work as a separate facility, what we call our Serious Infectious Disease Unit, specifically set up to handle COVID, and added a separate unit as well.

I want to give people a little perspective. Prior to Memorial Day (Monday, May 25, 2020), we were down to where we had no patients in our COVID units – none. Today (Wednesday, July 1, 2020), we have seen the hospitalization rate into the COVID unit increase by 1,300 percent. That is an alarming figure. That’s a lot of people. Our units approaching capacity. We need increased capacity, and I think I speak for all of my colleagues today when I say we all need increased capacity, and all of us are feeling the strain that’s reflected in the faces of our front-line workers because they need relief. That means nursing staff. We receiving notice yesterday evening that we have some relief staff heading our way, and that’s a good thing. 

But we stand ready with all of the measures we have put in place, and we are doing our part. I think it’s appropriate to ask the public to do their part. Follow the rules that we’ve been talking about. For those of you who remember what a vinyl record is, I sound like a broken record when I tell you to wash your hands, wear a face covering, maintain social distancing, limit yourself to activities that are essential, and don’t congregate, don’t come together. For the Valley, that’s difficult, because we are a pachanga culture. It’s very difficult, and I understand that. But we need to do these things because these are the measures that we can all use to help us control what’s very rapidly unfolding in front of us.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: Dr. Cárdenas, we’ve been hearing about (Health Institute for Research and Development) that DHR has, where people who have had COVID-19 can go to get their plasma removed in order to help current patients with COVID-19. Can you tell us more about this?

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: Sure, that’s a very exciting development. Early on in this pandemic, it was identified that individuals who have had the virus and recovered, would have circulating antibodies in their bloodstream, and those antibodies we could obtain by obtaining plasma. 

(People who recover from COVID-19 do so, at least in part, because their blood contains substances called antibodies, which are capable of fighting the virus that causes the illness. It turns out that for some other diseases caused by viruses, giving people the liquid portion of blood (plasma), obtained from those who have recovered from the virus, leads to more rapid improvement of the disease. Patients with COVID-19 may improve faster if they receive plasma from those who have recovered from COVID-19, because it may have the ability to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.https://www.mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-covid-19/public-guidance)

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: Plasma donation is something that’s been with us a very long time. To be able to use plasma donation as a treatment and therapy at DHR Health and other facilities that are participating in a multi-center trial using convalescent plasma has been a real boon for us, to be able to provide that. We’ve been working together with UTRGV and other facilities across the Valley to make this possible. However, the plasma doesn’t grow on trees. We need those individuals who have been ill with COVID-19, have recovered, and are feeling well and doing well, to go donate plasma. So, this is a plea to the public, for those of you who have recovered from COVID to volunteer and give your plasma, because that may help someone who is very ill with COVID-19 to potentially get better, and to participate in that important research study.

Besides plasma, we are also using Remdesivir inside a trial and outside the trial, as it has been made available. It’s in short supply, but as it becomes available, we’re using it as a therapy as well, as well as other therapies that are coming to light, including Dexamethasone. The research is an ongoing part of this. The only way we can lick this, in the end, is to continue to learn about it, and the more we learn about it, gives us the weapons that we need to be able to address the problems in front of us.

(Remdesivir has shown promise in early trials in speeding up the recovery time among hospitalized COVID-19 patients, according to Gov. Greg Abbott. Using a five-day average of hospitalization data, DSHS used county weighting of the number of COVID positive patients in hospitals to determine the number of remdesivir cases per county. Children’s hospitals are eligible this round due to the powder formulation of the medication.)

(Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid used in a wide range of conditions for its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant effects, according to the WHO, the World Health Organization. It was tested in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in the United Kingdom’s national clinical trial RECOVERY and was found to have benefits for critically ill patients. According to preliminary findings shared with WHO for patients on ventilators, the treatment was shown to reduce mortality by about one third, and for patients requiring only oxygen, mortality was cut by about one fifth.)

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: I guess, if you had COVID-19 and you’ve recovered, they should contact the Health Institute for Research and Development, and then you will tell them if they qualify to give plasma. 

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: That’s correct.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: Is there a difference in immunity levels for those who’ve had the virus?

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: What we’re learning about it is that immunity is something that’s still being determined. We are obtaining the plasma in those patients who’ve recently recovered, and that has been useful in treatment. How long antibodies actually last continues to be a matter of question. What we want to ask the public is if you’ve been infected, and you’ve recovered and are doing well, that you contact us to see about donating plasma, so we can participate, and have you continue to participate, and help us help people who are in the trial.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: I guess because we don’t know what level of immunity someone might have, we also don’t know for sure that you can’t get COVID-19 again, right?

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: That’s the other part of it. There are some studies that have shown there may be some waning (decreasing) of antibodies, so for how long the immunity will last is still being determined.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: That’s why it’s so important for all of us to continue to practice social distancing, wash our hands, sanitize our areas, all the things that we’ve been told, keeping six feet apart.

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: Absolutely.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: I’ve read that people who had COVID-19, even with a few symptoms, can end up with long-lasting effects. Do you know anything about that that you can tell us?

CARLOS CÁRDENAS, MD: There have been a number of reports that there are people who continue to have pulmonary issues long term. There have been a variety of areas that are still being studied as to what the long-term effects may be. There are some individuals who appear to have the illness, and the illness course continues unabated for long periods of time. 

We’ve learned a lot of things about how to treat patients, and we know that trying to avoid, for as long as possible, putting someone on a ventilator, helps in the recovery of that person to the degree that we can help them. Lying them on their stomach in the prone position is something else that we’ve learned early on that really helps these patients. There are things we are learning about this every single day. That research is, of course in this age of digital media, we’ve been able to communicate with centers across the Valley, state, nation, and the world, for that matter, to learn from each other, from the experience of other populations, that we can apply here.

VERÓNICA GONZÁLES: We learn something new every day about what works, what doesn’t, and what comes next with this virus.

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Highlights of Hinojosa’s’ key comments during the Sunday, July 19, 2020 video news conference with Cortéz, González, and Meléndez, which have been edited for content, follow:

SEN. JUAN “CHUY” HINOJOSA

Thank you so much, Judge Cortéz, for your leadership, and thank you so much, Dr. González and Dr. Meléndez, for your excellent health care advice to the general public. We all have to work together as a team. For us as a state, quite frankly, the challenges we face are varied, from making sure that we are keeping our unemployment benefit fund solvent to pay unemployment benefits to our workers who have lost their jobs, making sure that we have loans available to many of our businesses that have closed down, making sure that we fund our daycare centers so that parents can have a place they can leave their children in the event they go back to work.

Just as important, our frontline health care workers, our doctors, nurses, medical personnel, they are under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress, yet they are doing an excellent job. For us here in the Valley, we are a medically-underserved area, so we face extra challenges. For us, we have seen what is happening here in the Valley, as a State, we have responded. We have sent 624 medical personnel – nurses – to our hospitals here in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s important to understand that we have (hospital) capacity, the problem is we don’t have the personnel. We’re very short on medical personnel. That’s why as a State, we are sending the additional medical staff and nurses. We’re spending around $35 million a week responding to different hotspots in Texas. The problems we deal with are just so challenging. In addition to that, I know this week, it’s going to be bad. Next week it may be worse. But I think it will start peaking and coming down.

We requested help from the federal government, through Gov. Abbott, and we’re bringing down a Navy medical acute care team to help out our doctors and our nurses and medical personnel here in the Valley. That probably will take place by Friday (July 24, 2020 ). Also, we have at least one or two hotels online which will be ready to go by Friday (July 24, 2020) that will be able to transition some of the patients who are recovering, but no longer need extensive care. They will have their own room, bathroom, air conditioning, their own TV, so we’re working to make sure we have the (hospital) capacity needed to take care of patients. Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us have ever experienced anything like this in our lifetime.

This coronavirus, it mutates, so it’s challenging. I am astounded how but not so surprised, how rapid it changes. Some (people) are so much more infectious than others. But it is a real dangerous problem that faced the community.  Governments cannot do it by ourselves. We need the cooperation and help from our communities. We need to help to protect our families, our sons and daughters, fathers, and mothers, but also help with our neighbors, with our friends, by keeping our distance, and respecting distance. Many times we don’t realize that just a few simple health advice from our health experts is important, like wear our masks. It’s so important that I sometimes wonder why there is so much opposition to it. It’s simple. This is the way you stop spreading the viruses when you talk when you’re close to somebody else. Number two, keeping your social distance from other people – six feet at least. Three, washing your hands on a regular basis. Avoid crowds, avoid groups. As Dr. Meléndez, was saying about all the people on South Padre Island partying, folks, this is something that is impacting all our families, so we have to be vigilant. 

I’m optimistic because now, we finally have gotten very much focused to work together as a team. We’re more organized, the cooperation is unbelievable, so we can maximize our resources from the federal government, our state, county, and our hospitals. They are on the front line of this war if you will. Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a ghost. It moves, it shifts, but I have a lot of confidence by the research that is being done by our medical experts that at some point we’ll find a vaccine, just like we have in the past.

For us to continue making progress, and we will be at the worse of the worst in the next few weeks, we have to work together as a family, and help each other, by abiding these simple rules. For us (State), we continue to monitor the situation here in the Valley, and if any additional assistance is needed, we’ll respond. We’re here to help the general public, we’re here to help our first responders, and Gov. Abbott, on the Texas Emergency Management Division, is always ready and willing to respond to any emergency that we may have here in the Valley, and we will do just that. 

I’m positive. I’m always an optimist. We’ve gotten through many disasters in our lives, and in history, and we’ll get through this by being confident, having faith, and believing in ourselves and protecting ourselves.

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R-Myna Evans, Jackie Treviño, and Evana Vleck contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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