County warns of Delta variant spread

By Gaige Davila 

In a sobering press conference this past Monday, county health leaders pleaded with residents to get vaccinated for COVID-19, as younger people are being hospitalized with the Delta variant. 

Cameron County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo estimates at least 90% of new COVID-19 cases are Delta, a stark contrast to the amount of cases found 6 weeks ago, which was the last time the county held a press conference on the virus.

Cameron County’s COVID-19 case counts have risen by over 3,000 in the past six weeks, with over 40 additional deaths.

Castillo emphasized that the COVID-19 vaccine is what is keeping almost everyone who is vaccinated out of the hospital, saying 99.2% of Cameron County residents who died from COVID-19 since December last year were unvaccinated. 

Cameron County’s vaccination rates are better than most areas in the state. So far, 83% of residents 12-and-older have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 69.67% of that age group fully vaccinated, according to county data. Residents 65-and-older are over 90% vaccinated with the first dose, with 82.25% of the age group fully vaccinated. 

But Castillo said that this isn’t enough, as unvaccinated people continue to contract the Delta variant and overload county hospitals. 

“We can’t think we know everything about it, and we can’t think that this is done, or that this is over,” Castillo said. “We’ve been hit hard twice before, thinking that will give us herd immunity, or natural immunity. Wrong there, too. This virus is proving us wrong and it just got a lot more contagious.” 

The county will likely receive help from the state once again to assess the rising COVID hospitalizations, as they did last summer and winter. Around 1600 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout the Rio Grande Valley last summer, around 500 of which were in Cameron County. In the winter, 725 people were hospitalized with COVID, with around 250 of those people from Cameron County. 

Now, around 175 people are hospitalized with COVID, and they are younger than the waves the Valley saw last year. Most inpatients are under 45 years old, Castillo said. 

Children are contracting the Delta variant, too, at a higher rate than the previous variants of the virus. As schools prepare to reopen in the next few weeks, Castillo urged parents to make their children wear face masks, regardless of the state’s lack of mandates. 

“This virus, even if you’re young and healthy, can strike unpredictably,” Castillo said, noting that a vaccine for those and 12-and-younger isn’t anticipated until later this year. 

Melanie Garcia, a charge nurse in the ER at Valley Baptist Hospital in Harlingen, reiterated this point when she talked about a day in the life of the hospital’s COVID unit. 

“(Patients with COVID-19) come in pleading for their lives, telling us ‘we did not think that the virus was real, we did not believe the virus until today. What can you do to help us?” Garcia said, noting most people being admitted are under 40 and unvaccinated.

Most of these patients are put on oxygen, she said, and are struggling with their symptoms. This is compounded by the unequal ratio of healthcare workers to patients, saying adequate care can’t be administered when the hospital is operating over capacity, with nurses working over 70 hours a week to meet the demand. 

Garcia mentioned last summer’s spike in cases was crushing for hospitals, saying they lacked oxygen and beds for patients. She doesn’t want to repeat the same scenario this summer.

“We do not want to get back to that point,” Garcia said. “Ask anyone who worked in a hospital what it was like last July: it is not something that we want to see happen again.” 

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