By Gaige Davila
The Port Isabel-South Padre Press and our sister publication, the San Benito News, have been reporting the COVID-19 pandemic as it spreads throughout the Rio Grande Valley, namely on the precautions Cameron County, San Benito, Laguna Vista, Port Isabel and South Padre Island have taken. Both newsrooms are dependent on the Cameron County Public Health department’s press releases and Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr.’s press conferences for information on COVID-19 cases in the county.
These press releases and conferences are, our news teams have learned, the only on-the-record sources for COVID-19 case information in the county. The Port Isabel-South Padre Press’ and San Benito News’ multiple attempts to contact Cameron County Public Health department and the Judge’s office have not been returned, as of this article’s printing, for over two weeks.
But Cameron County is communicating with its municipalities, every weekday morning at 10:00 a.m., in conference calls with city officials across the county. Edward Meza, city manager of Laguna Vista, told me this after I asked him what the Town of Laguna Vista, who received their first confirmed case of COVID-19 last week, was doing in response. City officials know only the most minimal information on the cases, but police departments, if a case is in their jurisdiction, know their names and addresses.
Of course, we aren’t looking for their names and addresses. Those persons’ privacy are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). What we do want to know, or at least get a response to, is if a confirmed case is in our respective areas of coverage or has traveled there. Regardless if they are not an immediate threat to them, the residents have a right to know, if for nothing else to understand that this virus doesn’t exist in the abstract, no matter how much we want it to.
The above scenario is not a hypothetical one. My experience with Cameron County, on two separate occasions, in trying to confirm cases of COVID-19 in the area, have been met with silence. One of these cases, as far as we know, is still in the Laguna Madre area, and was confirmed to us by two official sources.
The other case, where two visitors to South Padre Island had contracted COVID-19 in Idaho, returning to the Island, then testing positive for the virus in Michigan, was confirmed by Cameron County via press release in the afternoon on March 18, after I asked for their confirmation several times, starting at 10:00 a.m.
Though our sources, who approached us because they had difficulty contacting Cameron County and the City of South Padre Island to report the cases, had given us more than enough information to publish the story, we would not until Cameron County confirmed the cases, to ensure the information was accurate. Perhaps, hopefully, it was coincidental that they confirmed the cases publicly only after I said we would publish the story without their comment.
In contrast, after receiving a vague tip that a woman from Mercedes, Texas, who tested positive COVID-19 traveled to South Padre Island, my request for confirmation was returned by Hidalgo County Judge’s office in eight minutes.
The spokesperson couldn’t confirm the woman’s travel to South Padre Island, but explained that the office was trying to confirm all travel and contact their cases had, saying the office would notify us if they needed to warn us. “I appreciate what you are doing,” the spokesperson said. “But HIPAA prevents me from helping for now.”
We understand that, too. What we don’t understand, however, is the consolidating that Cameron County is doing with their information on these cases. The press is not seeking to Page Six persons with COVID-19. We are not fear mongering either. But the public has a right to know of imminent and potential threats to their health and safety, with the most updated information, and unfettered access to elected officials to address questions. Communicating with the press is still the best way to share information with the public.
So, when you’re ready Cameron County, let’s talk.