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State, federal officials agree Hidalgo County needs alternative sites; three locations vetted

1 month 2 days 9 hours ago Thursday, July 09 2020 Jul 9, 2020 July 09, 2020 8:11 PM July 09, 2020 in News - Local

Last month, Hidalgo County officials started looking at places where they could open up alternative treatment sites. These spaces could help alleviate crowding at local hospitals caused by the pandemic. It's a kind of last-resort solution. This week, state and federal officials agreed the county will need them.

County officials started talking about alternative sites publicly two weeks ago. The plan was in the works for much longer.

Six weeks ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the Pharr Events Center, Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, said . It was part of a visit that included two other locations — the Mission Community Center and a privately-owned building in Weslaco, according to Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County health authority.

The three sites were vetted and approved for use as alternative treatment sites, should they be needed. This week, state and federal officials concluded the creation of these sites is indeed necessary.

"Our role as a county is to help facilitate the federal and the state administrative teams to help us pull this off. We're not in the business of opening and running hospitals, the county health department," Melendez said.

State and federal officials are communicating with county and city leaders about the options available.

Hospital officials told Hidalgo County Commissioners' Court the need is two-fold.

"There are two needs. One is a convalescing facility meaning someone has had COVID, doesn't have to be in the hospital anymore, but still needs care. Some of them need dialysis services," Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.

He added, "The other one is if the hospitals are in full capacity, then we need a field hospital — a hospital that can handle all of the acute care needs that are needed."

Aside from the three sites already vetted, Cortez said they're also looking at the McAllen Convention Center and the Mission Community Center.

Construction would be necessary at any of the sites. Contractors told the court they could do the work, but it could be costly depending the option.

Hotels are another option, but it's one that has only been suggested to the state, not the county. It was a distinction made by both Judge Cortez and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling on Thursday.

McAllen and Pharr mayors proposed using hotels in their cities as possible sites for recovering patients. They pitched it to state emergency management officials, but there hasn't been a response yet, Darling said.

"If the number of people being hospitalized would demand building a new building I would think we would look at the surge facilities possibly first, but I'm not in the position to make that decision."

Cortez says consultants have a more informed opinion. However, personally, he is leaning toward ample, open-spaces that are easily accessible. "Because, they'd come in here with modular rooms," he said.

The county voted Thursday during the meeting to use COVID-19 reserve funding for the "establishment of temporary public medical facilities," as per the agenda.

Reserve funding was separated for any unforeseen emergency spiked by the virus in the county. If the reserves would go unused by September 1, the money could be used to reimburse general COVID-19 related expenses.

Using the money now could steal the cushion the county built in for emergencies down the road this year.

"We have to think of today. Unfortunately, we have to think of today first and worry about tomorrow later. Because, right now we're having more fatalities than I ever thought we would have, I think what anybody thought we would have."

Twenty fatalities were reported on Thursday and over 1,200 cases were announced. However, the number of cases were due to a delay in receiving results from private testing sites.

The estimates to build the alternative vary wildly from overnight to several weeks.

"It's extremely laborious to set one up. Imagine three," Melendez said.

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Correction: The number of fatalities reported for July 9 was corrected as well as the day further discussions between officials took place.

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