McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The South Texas border county of Hidalgo is reporting an explosion of COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks — over 18,000 since just before Christmas, and health authorities say the state’s overwhelmed computerized reporting system is further adding to this escalating health crisis.
Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo “Eddie” Olivarez on Monday announced the startling infection totals of over 18,000 positive coronavirus cases since Dec. 23, which are cumulatively much higher than county officials had been reporting to the public on a daily basis.
Daily numbers have ranged from around 300 to 400 infections per day. (A report from Hidalgo County health officials sent Monday morning listed just 442 new COVID-19 cases and one death.)
However, the new figures mean that since before the holidays there have really been more like 1,050 coronavirus infections daily in this South Texas county of nearly 1 million people.
Olivarez blames “backlogged” reporting delays on the state’s computerized reporting system, which he said is overwhelmed with data being put in by health officials from throughout Texas.
He said it can take 35 minutes to input just one coronavirus case into the state’s database reporting system. On average, he said, health officials at the county are inputting just two cases per hour into the system.
The delay is compounded because of the state’s other 253 county health officials who also are trying to input data, along with private pharmacies and doctor’s offices statewide that are all trying to access the database at the same time.
“It’s just been tremendously overwhelmed,” Olivarez said during a Zoom call with media on Monday afternoon.
He has employees working nights and weekends and early morning hours to access the database when “we’re able to enter seven or eight per hour, rather than two per hour,” Olivarez said.
Border Report reached out to officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services and asked about delays in the computer reporting system, and what fixes the state is doing to help mediate the problem. This story will be updated if the agency responds with information.
The TDSHS online dashboard is updated daily with COVID cases for every county. The information listed on the dashboard Monday included:
- Hidalgo County had 12,174 active COVID-19 cases.
- The West Texas border county of El Paso had 8,880 active cases.
- Webb County, home to Laredo, had 7,127 active cases.
- Cameron County, on the Gulf Coast, had 5,732 active cases.
Cameron County officials on Friday reported 88 county employees were infected with the coronavirus.
Cameron County was the first South Texas border county last week to report a case of the omicron variant, quickly followed by five cases in Hidalgo County, and one in Webb County.
Olivarez said health officials believe that the omicron variant “is the predominant strain” in Hidalgo County. However, only five cases have been confirmed so far.
Part of the reason for a delay in reporting of omicron cases is because the only agencies that are able to test for coronavirus variants sent from the Rio Grande Valley is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Texas Department of Health Services in Austin.
Omicron is very fast-spreading and highly contagious and usually presents within one to three days of exposure. But it takes upwards of three weeks to get variant test results returned. So in the meantime, Olivarez said health officials in the county are working under the assumption that omicron is rapidly spreading.
“We all feel the omicron variant is the predominant illness,” he said.
During the holidays, many people wanted to travel and requested COVID-19 tests to cross the border and for other destinations, he said. That added to the numbers coming back higher on Monday.
In addition, his agency is working to help local pharmacies and doctor offices input COVID-19-positive results into the state database, and that is straining county resources and has increased the numbers being input on case totals.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he does not believe additional quarantine or lockdown measures are necessary at this time.
“Right now, I am not convinced that a course correction, especially any type of restriction of activities, is necessary,” Cortez said in a statement. “I am in constant contact with local and state health experts and I am fully prepared to change course if they believe it can help.”
Olivarez stressed that to avoid infection the public should continue to practice social distancing, hand washing, avoid large crowds, wear masks and get vaccinated.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was in Hidalgo County on Monday, in Edinburg, where the National Border Patrol Council endorsed his re-election for governor. Abbott, who has sued the Biden administration over its vaccine mandate for federal workers, said that he stands behind any Border Patrol agent who resists being vaccinated.
And Abbott made this offer: “If any of them lose their job because they don’t want to comply with the federal government vaccine mandate, then I, as the governor of Texas, would be happy to hire them for Texas to secure the border.”
Hidalgo County officials said they are working with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and state and federal officials to get a regional testing facility up and running soon.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.