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Coronavirus Outbreak Causes Strain In Rio Grande Valley Of Texas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Texas is one of the states with a huge surge of coronavirus cases, and one of the biggest hot spots is in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leanos Jr. reports hospitals in the region are struggling, and doctors say the situation is getting worse by the day.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR., BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

LEANOS: It's been nonstop. Next up, he has to call the wife of a COVID patient who just tried to take out his own ventilator.

IVAN MELENDEZ: He's super, super confused 'cause he keeps taking the machine off. So we're going to put someone on there to watch him. We've given him some increased medications, but he's not in any position to be pulling the apparatus off. He almost died tonight.

LEANOS: Not only is he an overworked doctor, but he also leads up 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 says, with the stay-at-home order, masks and other local mandates. Then, Melendez says, Gov. Greg Abbott reopened the state, and the problems mushroomed.

MELENDEZ: We went from 12 deaths in 2 1/2 months to 49 deaths alone yesterday. We went from two to three people ventilated and now we have about 150 on ventilators.

LEANOS: He says things are out of control. Hospitals across the Rio Grande Valley are near or at capacity. He says officials have brought in refrigerated trucks for bodies. This week, the county issued a shelter-at-home order but is prevented from enforcing it because local governments are not allowed to override state mandates. This 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 here come from people infecting their family members, either while living together in multigenerational homes or transmitting the virus when visiting relatives. Some families in this part of Texas are also mixed status.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS: Sidronia is with her church group outside the Mission Medical Center. They've gathered to pray for the medical staff inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SIDRONIA: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS: She asks, you know what would make me happy? She says if she had papers, so that she could have a good paying jobs. She didn't want her last name used because she's undocumented. She has high blood pressure and diabetes and is struggling to pay for her medications and her rent. 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.

SIDRONIA: (Speaking Spanish).

LEANOS: She says if she gets the virus, she doesn't have money and doesn't have anyone. And she worries about her grandson and her daughter because her daughter also doesn't have documents. She asks God to protect them. Richard Cortez is the Hidalgo County judge, the top elected leader. Cortez is pleading for any help his county can get help.

RICHARD CORTEZ: Help me test. Help me get the information back as soon as possible. Educate our people how to care for themselves if they're isolated at home. And help businesses operate safely. We need more doctors. We need more nurses. We need more technicians. We need more supplies.

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

For NPR News, Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Mission, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.