In late July, as coronavirus cases in Texas were soaring, officials in a remote border county issued a dire warning: The region’s sole hospital had become so overwhelmed with patients that it would soon start turning away those least likely to survive.
Fortunately for Starr County and its 65,000 residents, help arrived just in time. State emergency officials delivered much-needed medical supplies, and a Veterans Affairs hospital 230 miles north in San Antonio agreed to take in enough patients to avert disaster.
But three weeks later, with hospitalizations declining, Starr County’s pandemic woes are far from over, Judge Eloy Vera, the county’s top elected official, said Thursday. Infections remain high. Unemployment has shot up to 20 percent. Families are struggling to pay bills, he said, and the county’s three funeral homes are full.
“We’re in a very different situation than the rest of the country,” Vera told The Washington Post. “It’s not only the disease but the implications that it carries for a community like ours. We’re extremely economically deprived.”
Vera said his fears about the hospital overflowing have given way to concerns about federal relief funds drying up at the end of the year. Without another infusion of money, he said, Starr County will have a hard time providing assistance to small businesses and residents struggling to make ends meet as the pandemic stretches on.
Most locals were wearing masks and taking other health precautions after the crisis at Starr County Memorial Hospital last month, Vera said. The prospect of making life-or-death decisions about who received care reverberated around the nation, highlighting how hospitals in rural areas were especially ill-equipped to deal with influxes of patients.
“We were really scared that those decisions would have to be made,” Vera said. “I think we’re better prepared now. We have more resources and contacts who can come in to help. Our citizens also realize that this is a very serious virus.”
Still, even a minor shift in the pandemic’s trajectory could have outsize consequences in the area.
Starr County has some of the worst reported infection and death rates in the entire Southwest, according to tracking by The Post. To date, at least 23 people in Starr County are confirmed to have died of the coronavirus, with 45 suspected deaths pending certification.
“If you look at it on a bar graph, that’s pretty insignificant” compared with hard-hit urban areas, Vera said. “But to us, it is very significant.”