(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include Gov. Greg Abbott’s new mandatory face mask rule.)
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — An ambulance “strike team” arrived Wednesday in South Texas to assist overwhelmed local ambulance operators transport an onslaught of new coronavirus cases in the border county of Hidalgo.
The Texas Emergency Medical Task Force — made up of five state-commissioned ambulances — have advanced life support and basic life support capabilities and are working with local ambulance companies that have been struggling to transport the growing number of COVID-19 patients in the region, Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña said.
“Having the strike team on hand will be a big help to county residents by not having them wait for such a long period of time since current ambulances have been tied up at the hospitals answering other calls regarding COVID-19,” Saldaña said.
The task force arrived on the same day that U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, who lives in Hidalgo County, sent a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott requesting mandatory mask orders and the return of authority to local emergency managers to better handle the COVID-19 response.
On Thursday afternoon, Abbott ordered that facial coverings be worn in public by all residents in Texas counties where there are at least 20 coronavirus cases.
“Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another—and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces.
In addition, Abbott issued a proclamation giving mayors and county judges the ability to impose restrictions on some outdoor gatherings of over 10 people, and making it mandatory that, with certain exceptions, there can be no groups over 10 and Texans must maintain six feet of social distancing.
“Large gatherings are a clear contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases. Restricting the size of groups gatherings will strengthen Texas’ ability to corral this virus and keep Texans safe. We all have a responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep our communities safe,” Abbott said.
Texas has had over 168,000 COVID-19 cases and at least 2,481 deaths since the pandemic began. Hidalgo County, with a population of 860,000 has had 4,252 cases — the seventh-most in the state — and 49 deaths, including 11 fatalities and 440 new cases Tuesday, which was a single-day record high.
Cameron County, on the Gulf Coast, has had 56 deaths, including that of an 80-year-old woman from Brownsville on Wednesday. The Gulf Coast community reported 111 new cases on Wednesday, and has closed beaches on South Padre Island during the Fourth of July weekend to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“This is a crucial time and there is no doubt that quickly opening the State of Texas did not work. It is imperative that we work together to save the lives of our fellow Texans and act decisively on masks and stay at home orders,” Gonzalez said.
Earlier in the week, Gonzalez and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, who also represents parts of Hidalgo and Cameron counties, sent a letter to Abbott requesting he deploy thousands of National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley to help quell the spread of COVID-19 and to help with patient testing. They also requested that the troops set up a field hospital to treat the infected.