Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election.
On June 29, I attended a press conference at the Hidalgo County Commissioners facility to get an update on the rapidly escalating cases of COVID-19 in deep South Texas. The administrators for seven regional hospitals, the county judge, the county health director and the county’s health authority physician all urged the community to tread cautiously as deaths were increasing daily. Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County Health Authority Physician, was about twenty feet in front of me speaking about the need to maintain social distancing, facial coverings in public and limiting outings unless absolutely necessary. Then mid-way through the hour-long press conference, he disappeared.
I later learned that he had received an urgent message telling him to leave the room and get on a call, on which he was informed that he had tested positive for coronavirus. I wrote a story for Border Report explaining that he had been masked for the duration of the news conference, as had everyone else. I never interviewed him one-on-one, since he left early, and I counted my blessings that the press corps had been positioned feet apart in the back of the room, hopefully far away enough to avoid contracting the virus.
My husband, Carlos Sanchez, was also at the news conference. A former Washington Post reporter and editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald, the McAllen Monitor, and Texas Monthly, he left journalism this February to take over as the county’s director of public information. He had organized the news conference, in fact. He talked to several reporters and dignitaries and made sure everyone had secured the interviews they needed. I watched him have many close interactions with others that day.
Shortly after midnight, on July 1, my husband’s sixtieth birthday, he shook me awake and told me to get out of the room because he had a fever and body aches. In my sleepiness I didn’t quite comprehend what was happening. I grabbed my pillow and ran out of the room. As I lay on the family room couch without a blanket I realized what had just happened and I began to pray for my family. My eighty-six-year-old father was asleep down the hall. My three young adult children who have been staying with us during the pandemic were upstairs.
My husband isolated himself in our bedroom suite for the next eleven days, but his fever never broke. Luckily that room has a door to the backyard and I was able to stock the garage refrigerator with drinks and food for him and leave hot meals at his door. He continued to work, however, answering media calls, writing press releases and soldiering on. He tested negative twice, but we still suspected it was COVID-19.
He almost passed out after facilitating a Zoom press conference on July 9 with a 102-degree fever. My eldest son sent him hot soup, but his appetite continued to decrease, his breathing got more and more labored, and three days later, as the rest of us were about to eat dinner, he suddenly appeared in the dining room and headed for the front door. He was going to the hospital, he announced groggily.
My eldest son threw two masks on and drove him there with the car windows rolled down. Hours later, we learned that my husband had COVID-19. A day later, he was transferred to another hospital where he was placed on oxygen and given a cocktail of IV drugs and painful blood thinner injections through his stomach. He is just two miles away from us but we have no access to him. He calls me on a landline phone when he feels good. The hours, and sometimes days in between, I fear the worst. But I know he is lucky to have gotten into a hospital at all. Hundreds in the Rio Grande Valley are suffering at home with this disease, unable to get medical care.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez announced Sunday night that the county had 1,320 new cases and 17 deaths. 27 people died on Friday; 35 died last Wednesday––a one-day record. Altogether, 12,263 people have COVID-19 or have recovered from it in this county of just 860,000. The numbers grow astronomically every day as this border region faces what community leaders had so desperately warned could happen months ago when the governor reopened Texas.
With Mexico just six miles to our south and San Antonio four hours away, South Texas was slower to see cases rise and was holding its own until the state was reopened in phases on May 1. By the time the virus was peaking in mid-May in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas just across the Rio Grande, bars and restaurants here were allowed to reopen; gyms were accepting patrons once again and a feeling of complacency began to spread after months of tense waiting and worrying over when (or if) the novel coronavirus would strike the region.
It feels like the rest of the state and the nation do not realize what is happening here now. I have spoken to friends in the Northeast and Northwest who are completely unaware that we are the nation’s hotspot right now. They are unaware that last Monday, leaders from the nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse came to tour the area to see where they could build a field hospital and/or step-down convalescent unit for recovering survivors, like the organization did in New York City and Italy. They are unaware that suddenly, late last Wednesday, the nonprofit announced it wasn’t going to help aid efforts here. The Wall Street Journal reported that Governor Greg Abbott dissuaded the group from setting up operations here.
That garnered stiff criticism from Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat whose hometown is McAllen. “The governor needs to let those who want to help our overextended and exhausted medical personnel in South Texas do so. We have people who are suffering and dying. How can any governor see fit to deny a field hospital and critical medical services to overrun COVID-19 hospitals?” Gonzalez said in a statement. “I urge Governor Abbott to reconsider this decision and expedite the deployment of a field hospital by Samaritan’s Purse to the Rio Grande Valley. McAllen and South Texas need help now.” The Wall Street Journal story also quoted Melendez, the county’s health physician who had COVID-19 and had recently been cleared to resume seeing patients. The story said Samaritan’s Purse was informed that the governor had sent adequate resources to the region.
Abbott had sent a surge team of healthcare workers a few weeks earlier and an ambulance strike force was also sent to augment transport vehicles for the sick. But as numbers rose and hospitals were overwhelmed, it became clear that this was not enough. This region needs help and it needs it now. Every major media organization is here in town reporting on this story including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. On Thursday, Melendez was interviewed on CBS News and CNN mere hours apart.
Cortez on Monday issued new shelter-at-home orders, which he acknowledged have no legal backing, but in a statement, he said, “I strongly hope everyone will voluntarily follow so that we can slow the spread of COVID-19.”
I wish my husband could shelter at home with us but he is hooked to tanks of oxygen in a bright zero-pressure room. They are already discussing discharging him because others need the bed and he’s not on a ventilator. But where will he go? I’ve been told if he comes home we five (and three dogs) will have to go elsewhere because of his viral load. A field hospital and convalescent station sure sound like the answer to many of our prayers right now.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Carlos was released from the hospital on July 21 after 10 days and is in home isolation on oxygen treatments.