Seventy-two death notices spread across an entire page of the Monitor newspaper in Hidalgo County recently.
The small print entries, stacked in five ordered columns, did not mention Covid-19. But 27 residents of the South Texas community had died from the virus that day, 22 the day before and 35 the day before.
“I’ve never seen that in my life,” recalled John M. Kreidler, a local funeral director, whose family has led the Kreidler Funeral Home in McAllen for more than a century.
That was earlier this month, but things have gotten worse since then. The coronavirus pandemic is almost everywhere in this part of the Rio Grande Valley, where more than 92% of the population of almost 900,000 identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
Hand sanitizing machines and large containers with masks and gloves surround shoppers at the regional grocery store. Outside the Nomad Shrine Club, a shabby event space turned into a pop-up window, residents join a long line of people in cars looking for a Covid-19 test with quick results. Even Tex Mex, a gentlemen’s club, has a grim message for customers: “Dressed again.”
“The Rio Grande Valley has become the access point of an access point of an access point,” said Ivan Meléndez, the Hidalgo County health authority and a practicing physician. “We are at the epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States.”
Melendez recalled that she recently encountered a critically ill patient with an alarmingly low pulse. He tried to warn someone, but the nurses informed him that a different doctor had already decided not to intervene because
“I was not expecting [the patient] to survive”.
In the United States, where the prevailing mantra for physicians is “do no harm,” that kind of ruthless calculation hits hard, especially when many of the lives at stake are medically vulnerable and easily exploited.
In Hidalgo County, “a poor, fat, and diabetic population,” Meléndez said bluntly, nearly one in three people under the age of 65 lacks health insurance. Thirty percent live in poverty, and a 2020 WalletHub report found that three local cities have the distinction of being the “fattest” metro area in the nation.
Type 2 diabetes and obesity are among the pre-existing conditions listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as risk factors for “serious illness” related to Covid-19. Meanwhile, concern over exorbitant hospital bills dissuades some who are uninsured from seeking medical attention. These and other socioeconomic factors have caused major tragedies of the virus to disproportionately affect minorities in the U.S., with Latinos hospitalized at more than four times the rate of their white counterparts.
Hidalgo County is also located along the border between the United States and Mexico, and there are an estimated 102,000 unauthorized immigrants who may be afraid to seek medical attention within their margins. Large families serve as an ideal vector for the virus, as do those They still flock to the beaches and flea markets on the weekends.
According to the county, 467 community members have already died from Covid-19, most of them since Texas reopened in May. But the state government has actively thwarted efforts to return to confinement, prioritizing economic vitality even when the death toll skyrockets.
Leonardo Tremari is concerned about going to work inside a Walmart super center in McAllen, but he, and many other employees, have yet to work. “I have no choice,” he said to the Guardian, laughing tightly.
Last week, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F Cortez ordered residents to stay home and encouraged nonessential companies to limit their services. But a spokesman for Texas Governor Greg Abbott quickly undermined Cortez’s authority and said it was “simply a recommendation.” The fast-paced ping-pong policy is an extension of further politicization of the pandemic across the country during an election year, where just suggesting wearing a face mask has become a partisan whistle.
Some people in Hidalgo County remain convinced that the current health crisis is offset or exaggerated, despite the fact that now, at most, everyone is at most a few degrees of separation from someone who suffered or died at cause of Covid-19, Meléndez said. More than 15,000 people tested positive in the county, and last week, hospitals crowded more than 1,000 patients affected by the virus.
Within weeks, Meléndez put her sixth-grade teacher on life support, opened a body bag to play the video of a son’s farewell to a patient who had already died, and ran into a seriously ill nurse he had known for 30 years. years, whom he did not even recognize at first glance. Heartbreaking personal moments abound, as do thorny gray areas.
“There is a moral and ethical dilemma in every place we go,” he said.
Hospital emergency departments are struggling to cope, which is why other wings have been transformed into Covid units, even when they are not equipped to do so. A DHR Health health worker in Edinburg, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the patients in the hallways, two people in one room, and “all crooked at all times” in a rehab center that became half of the health emergency. The building is not made to provide as much oxygen to sustain life, they said, and once it just closed.
“Everyone who is a health professional here feels very helpless,” they said. “We are just trying to help do what we can with the horrible resources they have given us.”
The explosion of cases increases every day as new infections number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Although the Texas reopening plan relied on a symbiotic relationship between testing and contact tracing to reduce the spread of the virus, Hidalgo County contact investigations have become ineffective, Meléndez explained. There are too few contact trackers and too many positive results.
But eager locals are looking for diagnoses anyway. At the Nomad Shrine Club, where results take minutes rather than days, members of the public arrive as early as 2 or 3 a.m. just to get one of the 300 daily tickets available for a test. A few blocks later, another competitive tent operation generated so much demand that it rented a larger parking lot.
Both trial services charge fees, either $ 75 or $ 125. Neither has insurance.
Most patients simply say they feel depressed, said Genesis Gonzalez, a medical assistant who works at the store. “The next thing you know is that they come back positive.”
As González baked in the Texas sun, she wore a short-sleeved uniform and a mask, her hair carefully gathered. She and her colleagues have access to more complete protective gear, she said, but some of them get dizzy or pass out if they wear it in 101-degree weather.
At another test site, Daniela Garza comes through the car windows with her stethoscope. Her job is to take blood samples for testing, but at the same time she prescribes nebulizers, antibiotics, inhalers, or Z-Paks because some patients don’t have primary care doctors or can’t get in-person appointments right now. About 40-50% of the drive-thru tests are positive, Garza said. Sometimes you see people who have just lost family members or loved ones.
“I tell them, you know, ‘I have no idea what your loss feels like, and I’m so sorry for that loss,'” Garza said. “But I’m proud of them for coming to get tested so they don’t go out there and expose other people. That’s really difficult to do. “
At the Kreidler Funeral Home, the corpses wrapped in sheets, then in double bags and wrapped again, lay on the tables in the prep room because there was no room in the refrigerator. The crematorium is fully booked up to 10 days in advance.
Kreidler and his staff, including his wife and son, sometimes work late into the night without sleeping or eating regularly. They are constantly in a hurry, and every time a body leaves, it only means that another place has been opened.
“We want the pandemic to go away,” said the tired funeral director, who is fed up with how the crisis has been manipulated as “political football.”
“We need to stop this, and stop it now.”