COVID-19: the Rio Grande valley hit by a “tsunami”

America’s “Deep South,” one of dragging vowels, hospitality, great food and faith. But also a bitter South, an African-American belt of inequalities marked by history and racism, where strained relations between communities mobilize Donald Trump’s electoral base. The duty is on the road to understand these divisions and shed light on the changes underway. Today, a border community hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and a collateral victim of political divide in Texas.

Mourning after mourning over the coronavirus, anxiety still hangs over South Texas, and two doctors plead not to politicize the health crisis and to remain vigilant. Their blood-curdling tale of the peak of the epidemic in the Rio Grande region may serve as a warning, they hope.

When the Dr Ivan Melendez finally arrived at the bedside of his friend’s mother, it was too late. He opened the body bag the lady was already in and played the video intended for him. “See you on the other side, Mom, I love you,” her son was saying tearfully to the camera.

Hidalgo County Health Authority, and practicing physician, Mr. Melendez found himself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in July and August, in the epicenter of the epicenter in the Rio Grande Valley, the worst region in an already red Texas. Overwhelmed by hospitalizations and deaths, he too fell ill. Then it was the turn of the county communications director. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” he recalls. And then, an administrative assistant.

In a matter of weeks, the infection and death rate reached peaks comparable to those in hot spots that had struck the imagination the world over.

In “the Valley” as everyone calls it here, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of approximately 196 people per 100,000 population, according to the Texas Department of Health. The region of just over 1.3 million people is made up of four counties, including Hidalgo, where Dr Melendez practice in different hospitals. By comparison, that rate was 170 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in New York, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and 68 for Quebec.

In this border region between Texas and Mexico, the local authorities were however pleased until mid-May of a rate of infection notably lower than that of the rest of the state, and even lower than the average. national. The place was therefore relatively untouched at the very start of the pandemic.

“We thought we were going to get away from it, but we were dead wrong,” admits Jose Vallejo-Manzur, also a doctor in Hidalgo County. The first time I spoke to him, with hospitalizations exploding in mid-July, he was crying in his car. Pulmonologist, the Dr Vallejo-Manzur had just intubated patients he had almost no hope of saving, and he was seeing ten times as many patients daily as usual. Outside, he watched the mall parking lots and restaurants fill up.

Looseness and division

The Rio Grande Texans had let their guard down, encouraged by the relatively calm first two months. Until July, the pandemic was not yet tangible for many people in the region, “since they did not know anyone who had died from it,” says Melendez. There were only 12 deaths between March and May in his county.

But the 1er May, Texas Governor Greg Abbott allows the first non-essential restaurants and businesses to reopen, more than a month and a half before Quebec begins its gradual deconfinement.

Then the Valley began to make national headlines. About six weeks after businesses reopen and rallies are authorized, cases are exploding. Ambulances wait up to 10 hours to drop patients into an overflowing emergency room, hospitals bring in refrigerated trucks because their mortuaries are overflowing. The average death toll climbs to over 50 a day.

“We had 4 people in intensive care, and we end up overnight with 300 people in overflowing units,” says Dr.r Melendez.

“It’s like we flipped on the switch all at once. And we were hit by a tsunami, ”says Dr Vallejo-Manzur.

“We now knew what to do. Everyone knew you had to wash your hands, wear a mask and keep your distance. But some have chosen not to do so ”, underlines Dr Melendez, warning the whole world. He prefers to stick to individual responsibility rather than blaming state authorities.

His colleague does not mince his words. “Don’t make the stupid mistake we made here to politicize the wearing of a mask, such a simple gesture,” he says. Governor of the State, Republican Greg
Abbott, had banned major cities in Texas, most of which are run by Democrats, from imposing fines for not wearing masks.

July 20 is too much for Hidalgo County. A general containment order is given. The same evening, the governor’s office persists and signs: this local decree does not have the force of law and remains only an “unenforceable recommendation”.

Marked communities

“I signed more death certificates in the past two months than in my entire career,” said the 43-year-old doctor. Above all, not a day went by without someone known to the community dying. A nurse, the one who handled the sexual assault cases, was killed. A former teacher. A soccer coach.

“I come in to treat a man and after a few questions he gets angry and says, ‘You don’t even recognize me, Melendez!’” Says Ivan Melendez. He had not recognized his nursing colleague, whom he had known for 30 years, because his face was too swollen.

“With these deaths around us, this misery, I’m pretty sure all the doctors here are showing symptoms of post-traumatic shock,” says Vallejo-Manzur. Throughout the interview, he seems restless and wiggles his legs. “I told my colleagues that I didn’t feel able to go through something like this again,” he concludes.

And that fear has not gone away. A colleague from the same doctors’ office tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday afternoon.

What made the culture of the Rio Grande valley, the proximity and strength of families, also contributed to its loss. Already weakened by obesity, diabetes and poverty rates higher than the national average, the inhabitants of the region also live for several generations under one roof.

At La Piedad Cemetery, adjacent to McAllen Airport, the small mechanical shovel broke at the very start of this great wave. In early July, the volume of people
burying doubled, noted Juan Muñiz, an assistant to the cemetery supervisor. Additional staff were hired to dig the graves with shovels.

Despite the restrictions, entire families turned up for the funeral, recalls his colleague Jose Mata. “With mariachis,” he says. A son came to make arrangements for his father. Two weeks later, he was the one who died. Mr. Mata’s cell phone rings. ” Another. They are going to come and do the funeral on Saturday, ”he said, hanging up.

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