FEATURED, FROM LEFT: Yvette Correa, Member, Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Task Force; Carlos Cárdenas MD, Chair, Board of Managers, DHR Health; and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz. This image was taken on Tuesday, March 21, 2022, during Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Day, held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.
Photograph Courtesy HIDALGO COUNTY FACEBOOK
DHR Health’s Carlos Cárdenas, MD, looks back on first two years of COVID-19 in Hidalgo County: “This illness took a significant toll, a direct hit against our culture, our way of life.”
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
A growing number of Hidalgo County residents are cautiously breathing with more confidence as deaths, hospitalizations, and serious illnesses from COVID-19 – as of late March 2022 – had dramatically dropped since the first case of the potentially-deadly virus was confirmed in the region on Saturday, March 21, 2020.
Exactly two years later – on Tuesday, March 21, 2022 – leaders from throughout the county gathered at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance to observe the first of what is scheduled to be an annual and solemn public event: Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Day.
The multi-denominational ceremony, hosted by DHR Health, was the result of action taken on Tuesday, March 8, 2022, when the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court declared March 21 as COVID-19 Memorial Day in Hidalgo County.
The intentions of COVID-19 Memorial Day in Hidalgo County are to remember those who have died from complications of the airborne virus, to reflect on the community’s response, and to resolve to overcome the ongoing pandemic, according to Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz.
“This has been one of the most challenging periods in Hidalgo County’s history,” Cortéz said. “But people rallied to help one another and we will emerge from this terrible pandemic as a much stronger, much closer community.”
Since the first case was diagnosed, nearly 200,000 people in Hidalgo County had tested positive for the virus, and nearly 4,000 residents had died from the disease, as of Tuesday, March 21, 2022.
During the COVID-19 Memorial Day event at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, Carlos Cárdenas, MD, Chair, Board of Managers, DHR Health, recalled those first long, frightening 10 months in 2020 when the very infectious disease ravaged deep South Texas.
“I remember the early days – I think all of you do, too. I remember when we didn’t have a vaccine,” Cárdenas continued. “It took courage, it took a collective wisdom into every single leader to come together, to foment (come up with) a strategy to hold it at bay.
“Today, we’re gathered here for a solemn occasion. We’re also gathered here to memorialize those who passed due to an enemy, an illness, we could not see,” he said. “An enemy that lived in the air around us, an enemy that came forward when we had no weapons other than basic public health measures, which make so much sense, yet very difficult to impose.”
Such preventive measures include physical or social distancing, quarantining, ventilation of indoor spaces, covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing, and keeping unwashed hands away from the face. The use of face masks or coverings has been recommended in public settings to minimize the risk of transmissions, according to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.
“We struggled as a community, we came together as a community, with our first responders, every single member of this community was required, it was all hands on deck, until December (2020) came, after a horrible summer (2020),” he continued.
As the year 2020 was coming to an end, many desperate prayers throughout the U.S. were finally answered.
“When December (2020)came, we were given the sword that we needed to fight back against this virus – another public health measure: vaccination. So many of you stood up to make that happen,” Cárdenas said. “We did a lot of vaccines here, but frankly, things would have been much worse had it not been for the principles that we laid out, and were extolled (urged) by all of our leaders, and at the same time, we backed it up with vaccinations.”
As one of South Texas’ largest hospitals, DHR Health – as of March 31, 2022 – had administered more than 292,000 COVID-19 vaccines.
DHR Health is the flagship teaching hospital for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley 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 as of September 8, 2021, the only 24/7 Level One Trauma Center south of San Antonio.
The arrival and ongoing availability of COVID-19 vaccines has been a life-saver for Hidalgo County.
“It helped to keep our abuelitas (grandmothers) and abuelitos (grandfathers) safe, because so many of our families in Hidalgo County are multigenerational families, and this illness took a significant toll, a direct hit against our culture, our way of life,” Cárdenas noted.
According to the United States Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau, multigenerational households are defined as households that consist of “three or more generations of parents and their families.”
For too many people, their anguish is made worse by not being able to be with loved ones who are hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. Such isolation is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Not being able to grieve when somebody passes, very difficult for this community, because of who we are as a community. Everyone of you knows what I am talking about,” he said.
Cárdenas expressed confidence that Hidalgo County residents from all walks of life are determined to overcome all challenges brought by COVID-19, such as variants.
Variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are expected to continue to emerge, a natural process that occurs as viruses spread. Some variants will disappear, and others will continue to spread and may overtake previous variants. For example, the ancestral strain of the virus that caused the first Texas COVID-19 cases in early 2020 is no longer being detected. It was displaced by the Alpha variant followed by the Delta variant and may continue to be replaced by other emerging variants.
“We have the constitution (mental strength) as a community to come together and fight back, and that is what we are doing, and we have done it very well. We will continue to do it,” Cárdenas said. “It’s about partnership between our elected leaders, our community servants, our public health individuals, and our frontline health care workers.”
Eduardo Olivarez, Chief Administrative Officer for the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department, helped prove Cárdenas’ point about the will of the people to work together to successfully battle COVID-19.
“Today (March 21, 2022), we have 55 people in the hospital compared to July of 2020, when we had 1,400,” said Olivarez.
“Every single person on our team (at DHR Health), from the custodian to the ICI nurse at bedside, to the physicians we are finding every day in the separate COVID units that we turned on a dime to create to keep our population safe,” Cárdenas said.
The county proclamation, approved on Tuesday, March 8, 2022, that declared every March 21 as Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Day, follows:
Whereas, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a global pandemic; and
Whereas, Just 10 days later, on March 21, 2020, the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 in Hidalgo County was confirmed; and
Whereas, since that first confirmed case in Hidalgo County, nearly 200,000 more of our families, friends and neighbors have been infected with the virus, and an additional 78 million of our fellow citizens have been infected in the United States; and
Whereas, this disease has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 Hidalgo County residents, as well as the lives of nearly one million of our fellow citizens in the United States; and
Whereas, beyond the physical toll, the Brookings Institute estimates that COVID-19 has caused a 3.5 percent contraction of the global economy in 2020 alone, the largest contraction since World War II; and
Whereas, Hidalgo County will have been under emergency operation status for 746 continuous days on March 21, 2022, testing all of Hidalgo County government to respond like few times before in its history, particularly the Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Health and Human Services; and
Whereas, other entities in Hidalgo County, such as our first responders, our health care professionals, our educators, our business community, and our essential workers have contributed to the well-being of our community at this critical time; and
Whereas, all the residents of Hidalgo County have been impacted by this largest health crisis in a century, and their response proved inspirational as neighbor banded with neighbor, and demonstrated the virtues of community;
Now, therefore, be it proclaimed that the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court designates the 21st day of each March as Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Day, and asks all residents to use this fateful anniversary as a day of remembrance, reflection, and resolve on behalf of those family, friends and neighbors who succumbed to this terrible virus, and prayers for the continued healing of those who have survived.
The transcription of the remarks delivered by Carlos Cárdenas MD, Chair, Board of Managers, DHR Health, at the Hidalgo County COVID-19 Memorial Day event on Tuesday, March 21, 2022, follows:
CHAIRMAN, BOARD OF MANAGERS
Today, we’re gathered here for a solemn occasion. We’re also gathered here to memorialize those who passed due to an enemy, an illness, we could not see. An enemy that lived in the air around us, an enemy that came forward when we had no weapons other than basic public health measures, which make so much sense, yet very difficult to impose.
It took courage, it took a collective wisdom into every single leader to come together, to foment (come up with) a strategy to hold it at bay.
I remember the early days – I think all of you do, too. I remember when we didn’t have a vaccine.
I remember when we were talking to people about wearing a mask to protect themselves, but more so to protect others. It was about protecting others. By wearing a mask, we could do an awful lot to keep this illness from passing from one person to another.
We struggled as a community, we came together as a community, with our first responders, every single member of this community was required – it was all hands on deck, until December (2020) came, after a horrible summer (2020).
When December (2020)came, we were given the sword that we needed to fight back against this virus – another public health measure: vaccination. So many of you stood up to make that happen. We did a lot of vaccines here, but frankly, things would have been much worse had it not been for the principles that we laid out, and were extolled by all of our leaders, and at the same time, we backed it up with vaccinations.
It helped to keep our abuelitas and abuelitos safe, because so many of our families in Hidalgo County are multigenerational families, and this illness took a significant toll, a direct hit against our culture, our way of life. Not being able to grieve when somebody passes, very difficult for this community, because of who we are as a community. Everyone of you knows what I am talking about. There’s nobody in this room who hasn’t lost somebody they know or a family member to this dreaded illness.
But we have the constitution (mental strength) as a community to come together and fight back, and that is we are doing, and we have done it very well. We will continue to do it.
It’s about partnership between our elected leaders, our community servants, our public health individuals, and our frontline health care workers. Every single person on our team, from the custodian to the ICI nurse at bedside, to the physicians we are finding every day in the separate COVID units that we turned on a dime to create to keep our population safe.
It was everybody working together with no boundaries. For that reason, I think, today is a beautiful day to memorialize (preserve the memory of) those passed due to this illness, but to also thank God for having given us the opportunities and the weapons to fight back, because it could have been much, much worse.
At the same time, to memorialize and extoll (praise) those members of our public health team, our entire community from the grassroots to the top, who made the decisions necessary to keep us all safe. What a wonderful job you all have done. Thank you.
The video of the Hidalgo County COVID 19 Memorial Day gathering for Tuesday, March 21, 2022 is available online at:
University of Texas Systems regents approve $16.5 million in funding to enhance, expand student mental health and safety resources
The University of Texas System Board of Regents reaffirmed its long-standing commitment to prioritize student mental health and safety on in a special called meeting on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, approving the allocation of $16.5 million over the next five years to expand and enhance student mental health, student safety and alcohol education resources at all 13 UT academic and health institutions.
The UT System has been at the forefront of this important space dating back to 2011, when it became the first system of higher education in the nation to approve an investment toward comprehensive alcohol prevention, education and recovery programs at each of its academic campuses.
“Student safety is always top of mind for the UT System Board of Regents,” said Chair Kevin P. Eltife. “Our unanimous support of new funding speaks to the Board’s commitment to ensure the very best learning environments for all students across all UT institutions.”
Chancellor James Milliken said UT System leadership recommended additional investment in student mental health resources to the board based on national studies and internal data that has shown a significant rise in the diagnosis and treatment of student mental health issues – including stress, anxiety and depression – over the past 10-plus years.
The coronavirus pandemic and its associated challenges accelerated this trend, as the percentage of students at UT institutions who were diagnosed by and/or received mental health services from a professional increased from 20 percent to 30 percent from 2011 to 2021.
Student counseling centers reported a 38 percent increase in psychiatric hospitalizations during the same period.
“Student safety and wellness remain a most critical priority for UT institutions, and the Board of Regents’ newest investment will support, educate and treat students at all UT academic and health institutions throughout their journey toward a degree,” Milliken said. “Our campuses are grateful for the timing of these new resources that will allow them to expand and enhance the student services determined to be most effective over the past 11 years and during the pandemic.”
Milliken noted that the expanded student mental health initiative will continue to be overseen by the University of Texas at Austin, which has led UT’s system-wide effort to nurture student wellness and safety across the System since 2011.
The chancellor emphasized UT Austin’s capacity and history of success as a leader in student mental health in his remarks to the Board.
The total allocation of $16,500,000 will fund five initiatives, as well as evaluation of their impact, for five years across the UT System:
- Mental Health Crisis Line;
- Expanding Clinical Mental Health Services to Students Via Telehealth;
- Web-based Alcohol Education and Sexual Assault & Harassment Prevention for Students; Harassment, Safety, and Other Training for Faculty/Staff;
- Faculty and Staff Training; and
- Thrive at UT Mobile App.
About The University of Texas System
For more than 130 years, The University of Texas System has been committed to improving the lives of Texans and people all over the world through education, research and health care.
With 13 institutions, an enrollment of more than 243,000 students and an operating budget of $23.4 billion (FY 2022), the UT System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States.
UT institutions produce more than 67,000 graduates annually and award more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and more than half of its medical degrees. Collectively, UT-owned and affiliated hospitals and clinics accounted for more than 8.6 million outpatient visits and almost 1.8 million hospital days in 2020.
UT institutions also are among the most innovative in the world, collectively ranking No. 4 for most U.S. patents granted in 2020, and the UT System is No. 1 in Texas and No. 2 in the nation in federal research expenditures.
The UT System also is one of the largest employers in Texas, with more than 21,000 faculty – including Nobel laureates and members of the National Academies – and more than 85,000 health care professionals, researchers and support staff.
Paul Corliss 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).