‘This has been the toughest year of my 37 years of practicing medicine’: Hidalgo County COVID patients triple in 10 days

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HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas (KVEO) — Hidalgo County COVID hospitalizations are increasing exponentially in July after months of decline.

Just a few weeks ago Hidalgo County had some of its lowest number of new COVID cases per day since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

But now doctors across the country are warning that infections are increasing, and the Rio Grande Valley is no exception. 

Hidalgo County health authority Dr. Ivan Melendez summed up the frustration that doctors are feeling as COVID starts spreading more rapidly.

“This has been the toughest year of my 37 years of practicing medicine,” said Melendez.

He said that the number of COVID patients in Hidalgo County hospitals had tripled in the past two weeks.

“We’re up to almost 140 patients today, as of this morning. Compared to 48 patients just 10 days ago,” said Melendez.

COVID patients now make up around 13 percent of all hospitalizations in Hidalgo County according to Melendez. Almost 10% more than it was just three weeks ago. 

The county, state, and country were all heading in the right direction since the peak in cases and hospitalizations at the start of the year.

“We were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Melendez.

There was hope that COVID could be eradicated like smallpox by everyone getting vaccinated against the disease. That didn’t happen.

Roughly half of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 according to data from the Mayo Clinic. That percentage is increasing, but slowly.

As of July 22, 49% of people were fully vaccinated. A month ago, on June 22, 45.4% were. The 3.6% increase translates to around 12 million more people becoming fully vaccinated in that time frame.

But now the uptick in cases leaves health officials with little optimism.

“Unfortunately, I think we squandered our opportunity,” said Melendez.

COVID-19 has become a pandemic for the unvaccinated, as nearly all COVID patients in hospitals across the country are unvaccinated.

The same is true in Hidalgo County.

“Here in Hidalgo County, it’s about 95% of the people that are in the hospital have never been vaccinated. So, the vast majority, greater than 90% on a regular basis, are unvaccinated people,” said Melendez.

Around 5% of COVID patients in Hidalgo County are people who have been fully vaccinated. These are referred to as “breakthrough” cases.

Dr. Marissa Gomez-Martinez, the medical director for DHR Edinburg CISD health centers, told KVEO earlier this week that the majority of breakthrough cases she has seen have been people with high-risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

Hidalgo County has one of the highest percentages of people fully vaccinated in Texas.

But Melendez warned that the vaccination percentage can be misleading because it doesn’t account for nearly 20% of the population: kids under 12 that cannot be vaccinated because no vaccine has received approval for that age range.

He said that the high percentage of people 12 and older fully vaccinated, over 65% in Hidalgo County, can give a false sense of security about how protected we are.

“[The vaccination percentage] is okay if you’re looking at success rates of vaccination, but that’s not very descriptive of how many people can carry the virus,” said Melendez.

The FDA has said that a vaccine for children under 12 could be approved by mid-winter.

But that is still half a year away, and COVID cases are continuing to climb.

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