The situation was not always as dire in this rural South Texas county.
Starr County once went about three weeks without a COVID-19 case at the beginning of the pandemic. It banned large gatherings, tested hundreds of residents a day, issued stay-at-home orders and required face masks — many of the same mandates now commonplace across the U.S. The poor and mostly Latino county on the Mexico border was containing COVID-19.
“A model for the country,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said Tuesday — as he shared an update that now appears gloomy.
In April, its aggressive and successful approach to beating the coronavirus was spotlighted by NBC News.
“We are very proud at this point that our numbers are very low, considering we are an at-risk population and the disparity in medical services and our low socio-economic population,” Joel Villareal, mayor of county seat Rio Grande City, told NBC News. “We rank as one of the poorest counties in the nation. However, that does not deter us.”
But after Gov. Greg Abbott issued orders for the reopening of the state, overriding local control and decision-making, COVID-19 cases surged.
Now Starr County is at a dangerous “tipping point,” reporting an alarming number of new cases each day, data show. Starr County Memorial Hospital — the county’s only hospital — is overflowing with COVID-19 patients.
The county has been forced to form what is being compared to a so-called “death panel.” A county health board – which governs Starr Memorial – is set to authorize critical care guidelines Thursday that will help medical workers determine ways to allocate scarce medical resources on patients with the best chance to survive.
A committee will deem which COVID-19 patients are likely to die and send them home with family, Jose Vasquez, the county health authority, said during a news conference Tuesday.
“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”
Starr County, with a population of about 61,000, is located in the Rio Grande Valley about 230 miles south of San Antonio. It has more than 1,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 17 deaths as of Friday, according to the county. Vasquez told The Monitor there are more than 32 more pending confirmation by the state.
Per 100,000 people, Starr County has reported about 92 cases a day over the past week — the 11th highest rate in Texas, data compiled by Harvard Global Health Institute show.
Starr Memorial quickly filled up its eight-bed COVID-19 unit after the state began reopening and expanded to 17 beds, Vasquez said. It expanded again to 29 beds when state officials sent medical workers to the county.
On Sunday, Gov. Abbott announced U.S. Navy teams will go to South Texas to provide medical assistance, including the hospital in Starr County.
Still, the new committee will be necessary, officials say. The hospital transfers COVID-19 patients daily to other counties and even out-of-state, but those hospital beds are filling up, Vasquez said.
“For all of those patients that most certainly do not have any hope of improving, they are going to be better taken care of within their own family in the love of their own home rather than thousands of miles away dying alone in a hospital room,” he said.
As the situation has gone from promising at beginning of the pandemic to desperate, the county judge reinstated a stay-at-home order and curfew on Friday. Another order will delay in-class school instruction until Sept. 27.
“Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones,” Vera said when announcing the orders this week. “This is what we did not want our community to experience.”