Politics rear head in local COVID-19 response

McALLEN — The response to a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in South Texas has devolved into a political firestorm between the governor and local lawmakers as they fight for control over who gets to call the shots.

At the heart of the issue: how to create more capacity for hospitals in South Texas and who should be able to make decisions about the health and safety of the community.

On one side, Gov. Greg Abbott and his team of experts believe the best way to create hospital capacity in the Rio Grande Valley is to send more medical personnel to the area and to house less critically ill patients in local hotels.

On the other side, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, is pushing Abbott to work with Samaritan’s Purse, a nonprofit organization that previously set up field hospitals in New York and Italy, to open a 60-bed tent hospital in McAllen.

Meanwhile, deaths have more than quadrupled and infections have more than doubled in Hidalgo County this month alone. From July 1 to July 17, cases and deaths jumped in the county by 157% and 445%, respectively. Friday’s last count had the county’s death toll at 267 with 10,943 total cases.

On Friday, Gonzalez also joined forces with U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, to once again ask the governor to give back authority to local jurisdictions.

“Mr. Governor, we are pleading with you to give local jurisdictions the ability to issue stay at home orders in order to roll back the tide of COVID-19 cases and deaths in these communities,” the legislators wrote Friday, noting Texas set a new record with nearly 10,800 new cases and 110 deaths reported within “the last 48 hours.”

Hidalgo County reported 27 deaths on Friday and 22 the previous day.

“And today, an unpublished White House document obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, which was withheld by the White House, says Texas is one of 18 states where the coronavirus has gotten so out of hand that officials should start rolling back their re-openings,” the lawmakers’ letter continued.

On Wednesday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez called on Abbott to take drastic action and said he would be willing to shut down the county for about two weeks to get control of the virus, which has been ravaging the Rio Grande Valley since early July, when local hospitals first warned they were nearing capacity.

The governor, however, has made it abundantly clear that only he can shut down the economy — and he’s not willing to do it again.

“Let me tell you, there is no shutdown coming,” Abbott told a Houston TV station Thursday.

This week, Abbott also dissuaded Samaritan’s Purse from setting up an emergency field hospital in McAllen, noting instead that at least 80 additional healthcare professionals from a U.S. Army Medical Task Force were scheduled to arrive in the Rio Grande Valley this weekend to create more capacity at local hospitals.

“Because of this, Samaritan’s Purse will not be deploying an Emergency Field Hospital to McAllen, Texas, at this time,” the faith-based organization said in an email Wednesday.

The news of Abbott’s stance on the field hospital upset Gonzalez, who on Thursday accused the governor of playing politics.

“How can any Governor see fit to deny a field hospital and critical medical services to overrun COVID-19 hospitals,” Gonzalez asked in a prepared statement Thursday and then again on Twitter the following day.

On Friday, Abbott’s spokesman, John Wittman, had a reply.

“The governor will not put Texans on 141 degree asphalt,” Wittman wrote in response to Gonzalez’s criticism on Twitter. “Instead he opted for hotels which have ac, their own bathrooms and showers. Perhaps the Congressman should tell the full story next time.”

Gonzalez shot back, “These are the same hospitals used in extreme weather in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in Houston. Retrofitting hotels takes time we don’t have. People are dying and help is needed now!”

The chasm between Gonzalez and the governor’s office concerns state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.

“It’s counterproductive to be criticizing the governor and making it partisan and political when it’s not,” Hinojosa said. “We have too many cooks in the kitchen and we need a better coordinated effort.”

Hinojosa defended the state’s response to the local surge in cases, noting that more than 620 medical professionals were previously sent to the area through a partnership between Texas Department of State Health Services and BCFS, a San Antonio-based nonprofit.

“We’ve been responding,” Hinojosa said. ‘It just doesn’t help to have two other people try to come in and make it into a political issue because this issue is very politicized. It doesn’t do any good to criticize Gov. Abbott because of the misconception that he said no to Samaritan’s hospital — that’s not what he said.”

The state senator disagreed with the characterization that Abbott had disallowed the organization from setting up shop.

“This issue about Samaritan’s hospital — that we rejected it outright — is not correct,” he said. “Obviously if the need changes, we’ll be glad to have them come in, but at this point we need to organize ourselves here in Hidalgo County and look at the resources that we already have… “

Those resources include 120 beds at Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco that are not being used because the hospital does not have enough staff to man them, Hinojosa said, noting Gonzalez was one of the Valley lawmakers who pointed this out to Abbott in a letter they sent Tuesday.

“They were offering 60 beds,” Hinojosa said about Samaritan’s Purse. “Our issue is not capacity. We have over 120 beds available at Knapp Medical hospital — that is double what Samaritan’s hospital offered. What we need is additional nurses and doctors.”

Hinojosa also said there is a need for better coordination between medical leadership in the Valley, “especially in Hidalgo County.”

“(Cortez) is doing a good job under very challenging circumstances. The problem is, we have too many other people butting in and (having) their own opinion about what ought to be done,” Hinojosa said.

When asked if he agreed with Cortez’s comments on needing a local shutdown, Hinojosa said he would respect the county judge’s decision.

“Quite frankly, at the state level, we may end up going back to Phase I,” he said. “Obviously we are trying to manage a situation that is very challenging.”