EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with new totals of cases from Hidalgo and Webb counties.
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A sixth death from COVID-19 over the weekend in the border city of Laredo, Texas, had authorities contemplating whether all residents should be required to wear masks indoors, as well as outdoors.
Perhaps the suggestion — made by Dr. Victor Treviño of the Laredo Health Authority during a conference call on Sunday — was borne out of frustration. But the message was clear: Something must be done to ring the alarm and lower the high rate of community transmission in this city of just 250,000 people.
On Monday, authorities announced that four more people had tested positive for the coronavirus, including a second pregnant woman. This brings the total number of COVID-19 patients to 122 in Laredo and surrounding Webb County.
With only about 0.5% of area residents tested, this relatively small community currently has an infection rate of 17%, which officials say is quite high. And health officials during their daily noon video conference call with media were clearly sounding the alarm.
“I suggest the city council and mayor consider taking his to the next step and requiring masks inside. Asian countries do it. People have masks all the time, inside and out. Why don’t we do that here? It is something I believe the city council needs to now consider,” Treviño said.
He admitted that Laredo and Webb County “already have some of the toughest restrictions,” requiring mouths and noses covered in all public spaces, limiting to 10 the number of people inside a public facility, an overnight curfew, and strict shelter-in-place rules. And yet, he said, the numbers keep increasing.
“I want to ratchet up the heightened sense for what we’re doing. If we can operate with the heightened sense of urgency, with the need for us to take this seriously,” Laredo City Manager Robert Eads said. “I’d rather us be running around with a much more sense of alertness because this has gotten to the point where the numbers are not where we want them to be.”
I’d rather us be running around with a much more sense of alertness because this has gotten to the point where the numbers are not where we want them to be.”Laredo City Manager Robert Eads
“Let’s also please be brutally honest with everyone because only that way will we get through this. And if that’s what it takes to keep people at home and separated, then that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Eads said.
His comments came as officials announced that a woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions had succumbed to COVID-19 on Saturday, the sixth death in the region. That’s as much as Austin, and just three fewer than Houston, the largest city in Texas.
Late Monday, Hidalgo County, which is the largest county with 1 million residents reported an additional 14 cases, bringing its total to 113 cases but no deaths. Fourteen people were hospitalized, four in intensive care.
A ProPublica story on Friday reported that South Texas could be the next hotspot for COVID-19 because of a lack of testing, insufficient hospital beds, and a high number of undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify for testing.
To compound the situation in Laredo, the city and county felt duped last week when they were sent 2,500 faulty COVID-19 tests, which they were counting on to help identify and isolate those with coronavirus.
“We’re taking this seriously. This is not a joke,” Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina said on Monday’s media briefing.
Starting Tuesday, Laredo and Webb County residents can get up to five gallons of a free disinfectant solution that the county is giving out. The county has purchased 25,000 gallons worth of the mixture at a cost of $8,000 in order to try and contain the spread of the virus, Tijerina said, adding, “We will do this if we have to up to twice a week.”
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz on Sunday said he is most worried about the region’s hospital capacity. Laredo Health Department Director Hector Gonzalez said that includes only 270 beds in two facilities, 28 ventilators, and 39 other respiratory support systems,
“The medical capacity we have, this pandemic could rise quite rapidly, like in other cities. What worries me the most is we are prepared to a certain level then after that who knows? It will put a tremendous stress on our community. It’s potential is 10-fold and we don’t want to get there,” Saenz said. “This potential killer has a fury it’s demonstrated over and over again and if that doesn’t scare you then what else? Nothing will scare you.”
Laredo Police Chief Claudio Treviño said his department cited 21 people on Saturday and 11 on Sunday, including several for violating the overnight curfew and not wearing facial coverings. The fine is up to $1,000 and 180 days in jail, but nevertheless, officials say the public is still going out needlessly and in groups.
“It’s very alarming. I’m very worried about the people not adhering to the order,” Tijerina said.
Laredo Fire Chief Steve Landin implored families not to grocery shop together. “We ask for the public’s consideration that if somebody does have to leave their home that it be limited to just one person, not the whole family,” Landin said Monday. “You are risking your children’s contamination possibly by taking them all to the grocery store. It’s not a family outing, it’s a family necessity. We ask you to minimize exposure.”
You are risking your children’s contamination possibly by taking them all to the grocery store. It’s not a family outing, it’s a family necessity. We ask you to minimize exposure.”Laredo Fire Chief Steve Landin
This plea came after border authorities last week echoed similar concerns throughout South Texas, wherein many Hispanic families grocery shopping together is a tradition born of culture and, sometimes, economic necessity.
“We are dealing with a silent killer that has yet to reveal his full potential here,” Saenz said in a video released Monday. “I plead and pray for your full cooperation.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.
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