Eight Del Rioans dead of COVID-19, and the looming specter of a rising death toll. More than 800 positive COVID-19 cases in Val Verde County. Del Rioans suffering from COVID-19 pneumonia waiting for hospital beds. Plans to buy a refrigerated truck to temporarily house the dead.
These and other grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic here were laid bare during a question-and-answer session with community leaders Wednesday.
Four community leaders confronted a wide range of questions about the impacts of COVID-19 during the televised press conference.
Val Verde County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr., Del Rio Mayor Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano, Val Verde Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Linda Walker and Val Verde County Local Health Authority Dr. J.J. Gutierrez fielded questions from the Del Rio News-Herald, Del Rio Buzz, an online social media outlet; and two radio stations KDLK and KWMC in the auditorium of the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District Student Performance Arts Center and Administration Building.
After the four made brief introductory statements, the question-and-answer session began with those asked by David Galindo of DelRioBuzz and Courtney Captain of KDLK.
Walker, on a question from Captain about access to ventilators and other medical facilities, said one of the first things Val Verde Regional Medical Center did was to move from one COVID-19 unit to four.
“Our COVID-19 capacity when we first started was seven beds, and now we are up to 31 COVID-19 beds that are dedicated ... our total bed capacity is 72, and if we have to continue to open COVID-19 units we will do that,” Walker said.
She said other outside medical personnel also have been sent to the hospital.
Walker said the hospital has reached out to facilities in San Angelo and Austin to find beds for patients in such serious condition that they need to be transferred.
“When we need to transfer a patient, we reach out to San Angelo, we reach out to Austin. If the other cities cannot assist us, if San Antonio is full, we do have to hold our patients in the emergency department until a bed becomes available. We have had limited success transferring to San Angelo and Austin, but we do hold the patients in ED until a bed becomes available in San Antonio or if a bed becomes available in the facility,” Walker said.
The hospital CEO also addressed equipment needs.
“We knew we needed some more equipment, so we have leased some ventilating equipment. We make purchases of PPE (personal protective equipment) when the supply chain allows us. We have PPE allocations monthly, and we work very hard to make those go as far as we can, and then we also make daily requests to the state and the federal government for additional PPE,” Walker said, adding the hospital has also received PPE through donations from organizations and private individuals.
“We have recently received our first shipment of (the drug) remdesivir. We received it on-site yesterday, and we are now on the allocation list. The majority of this medication, though, is allocated to the hospitals with the highest COVID-19 patient admissions. We are at least now on the allocation list, and we will keep them updated on fast it’s going and how much we are using,” Walker said.
Walker addressed staffing levels at the hospital, saying more staff is needed.
“There is short-staffing everywhere. We know that. What we have done is worked with our hospital staff, our nurses and respiratory therapists. They have all stepped up, and they are taking on extra shifts, including active staff members who normally do not work the COVID-19 units. We are recruiting, and we do have recruitment efforts out for additional staff in our nursing units and our respiratory therapists. Respiratory therapists are very, very hard to come by right now,” she added.
Walker also expounded on bed capacity at the local hospital.
“In March, when we first opened up our first COVID-19 facility, we converted our ICU (intensive care unit), we had seven beds. We opened up a second, a third and now a fourth. We are up to 31 beds for COVID-19 capacity. We are looking at other areas of the hospital that we can convert,” Walker said.
She added the hospital has ordered 13 new beds in an effort to continue to expand its capacity.
She said 15 employees at VVRMC have so far tested positive for COVID-19. Two of those employees have since been cleared to return to work, and 13 remain at home, waiting to be cleared.
She also discussed patient transfers to other hospitals in the state.
“I know the perception is that we’ve been denied. We’ve not been denied transfers. We’ve been put on a waiting list, and once we go on that waiting list, we hold them in our ED until we get a bed. If they’re critical, we want to get them out. We don’t want to keep them in the hospital if they’re truly critical, and we need to get them out.
“The hospitals aren’t truly denying them. They’re at capacity. We have to understand that, and I want to make sure that everyone understands that San Antonio is not denying us, San Angelo’s not, Austin’s not. They’re in the same position we are. We actually held a patient in the ED for 36 hours until we could get a San Antonio bed,” Walker said.
On a question about daily hospitalizations due to COVID-19, Owens said the county will begin making those numbers available to the public.
Both the county judge and the mayor said they have sought additional authority from the state to impose COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“If he’s (the governor’s) addressed it, we have no more control over it,” Owens said.
The county judge added the surge in numbers currently being experienced in Del Rio “is because of gatherings.”
The judge listed local businesses where an employee has tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’m going to go ahead and say it. We’ve had cases at Walmart, we’ve had cases at H-E-B, The Home Depot, SAS (San Antonio Shoes), Premier Plastic, GenTherm. We’ve had cases there,” Owens said.
He noted 50 percent of current local cases are family-related, 25 percent are from Ciudad Acuña and the remaining 25 percent “are all over the place.”
Owens blamed family gatherings for the greatest number of cases.
He said one major issue being faced is that some persons who have tested positive don’t stay home.
“If you test positive, you’re supposed to isolate, and your household is supposed to quarantine. It can’t get any simpler than that, and that is where the spread is coming from,” Owens said.
Gutierrez spoke about his day at the hospital, making the rounds of his COVID-19 patients.
“The common theme we’re seeing among these (ventilator) patients is age. They’re all in their 60s and 70s, all with (underlying) conditions, hypertension, diabetes, circulation problems, auto-immune conditions ... we don’t see the young people there, but unfortunately, it’s the young people infecting the older people,” Gutierrez said.
The younger people he talks to, he said, typically don’t have symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization and those with symptoms seem to recover relatively quickly.
“It’s sad and frustrating and upsetting that these poor (older) people are fighting for their lives through no fault of their own because they were exposed to the virus by younger people,” he said.
Gutierrez also said there is a direct correlation between the increase in positive COVID-19 cases and recent major holidays and their corresponding celebrations by Del Rioans.
“We were stuck at 13 (positive cases) for the longest time, and my fear was Mother’s Day. And just about 10 days after Mother’s Day, we got number 15, and then it was 16, then it was 20, 26, 30, 50. It’s just like clockwork. You get people together, and 10 days later, you going to see a flurry of cases. And soon after Mother’s Day, it was Memorial Day, and sure enough, that first weekend in June you saw a massive amount of positives come in. The more people get together, the more cases you’re going to see, no question,” Gutierrez said.
He said Del Rioans must take personal responsibility “to get rid of COVID-19.”
Following the lengthy question-and-answer session, each of the four community leaders participating in the event gave a closing statement.
Lozano said as of Wednesday, Del Rio had 807 total cases, with 666 active cases and 141 recovered. A total of 6,175 tests with 491 pending results.
The mayor urged Del Rioans to stay apart for three weeks.
“Social distance. Wear your mask. Avoid large crowds. Monitor your symptoms. Wash your hands. That message has been consistent from my office, the judge’s office, from the governor’s office, from the CDC. It has not changed. There’s no cure. There’s no miracle right now. This is not going away,” Lozano said, adding the COVID-19 pandemic is reminiscent of the HIV crisis of the 1980s.
Gutierrez spoke about working at the hospital.
“These are unprecedented times right now. It’s unfathomable to think that this is happening in Del Rio ... we don’t deal with big-city problems, but we’ve got a big-city problem right now, and unfortunately, we created that monster. It’s our own fault that we’re where we’re at. Having said that, we can certainly do things to rid ourselves of this virus,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez also said the hospital has initiated an ethics board for the first time in its history.
“We have a certain 84-year-old lady. She’s not doing so well. We have a 50-year-old who needs that ventilator. Those are decisions that are being made behind the scenes ... it’s almost like we’re playing God, and it’s a difficult situation to deal with day in and day out,” Gutierrez said.
Like Lozano, he called on Del Rioans to do what they can to stop the spread of the virus.
He said he had received calls from local funeral homes, asking what to do with the bodies as their facilities neared capacity. The city and county, he said, are planning to buy a refrigerated truck “to accommodate our dead.”
Owens ended the session with his own summary.
“We were at eight confirmed deaths,” Owens said, adding that number is expected to rise.
Of the number of future deaths, Owens said, “We’re planning for the worst but praying for the best.” “We’re in the process right now of bringing in either a refrigerated trailer or a box van that can be refrigerated ... we’re not there yet ... but again: Pray for the best. Plan for the worst,” Owens said.