Hidalgo County takes first steps to expand health department facilities, COVID-19 response

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EDINBURG — Hidalgo County commissioners gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to expand the health department facilities.

The commissioners' court decided to assign property for the addition of portable buildings and the construction of a laboratory. They will be staffed by employees who will be addressing the needs of the community during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

"Hidalgo County health [department], we've been in the same facility for many, many years. And, we're very tight for space," Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County Health Department director, said.

In 46 days, the county saw its first positive COVID-19 case grow past 350. County officials are looking for ways to avoid getting outpaced by the growth of the virus.

Olivarez believes the addition of the laboratory will help fill a need long overdue. "Unofficially, right now, our population is about 1.2 million people. So, I think it is part of our public health progression is to look at developing this laboratory capacity here in Hidalgo County to assist with not only COVID issues but dealing with any other respiratory, infectious diseases that may occur," Olivarez said.

The health department director confirmed they received a state grant backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 response totaling around $1.2 million. It's going to allow them to hire up to 15 full-time positions and four temporary positions for up to a year.

Those employed under the grant will be tasked with "anything having to do with COVID, investigations, intervention, assessment, later on vaccinations. Things like that," Olivarez said.

Currently, a job description posted on the county's website lists three positions for a COVID-19 medical technician. They will be expected to perform clinical duties and treatment of COVID-19 clients. Technicians will also "respond to all bio-terrorism events or large disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies anywhere in the state."

Part of the state grant will be used for the addition of the portables. Several other purchases were also approved including generators for the clinics, improvements to the systems used by the county to track and record patient information, and autopsy facility improvements.

Other monetary sources for these projects include those from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Commissioners expressed concern during Tuesday's meeting at juggling state and federal money for these projects. Each requires specific use in order to qualify for coverage. The items were approved with the provision that the county's legal department look over the projects for compliance with the funding requirements.

Projects will begin when the commissioners give final approval. Olivarez said they expect the employees newly hired through the grant will begin showing up to work as early as Monday.


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