What once was a shining example of how best to beat the coronavirus has become a nightmare for residents of Texas's Starr County, where the pandemic has become so bad, the local hospital has enacted emergency guidelines allowing them to send home the most seriously ill patients to die with family rather than under medical care.
"The situation is desperate,” Dr. Jose Vasquez, the county's health commissioner, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering."
Starr County Memorial Hospital has just 48 beds and serves around 65,000 people. It was, until June, one of the few counties that had managed to keep the coronavirus pandemic largely under control, thanks to a suite of common sense orders like mask rules, large-scale testing, and limits on public gatherings. As a result, Starr County experienced just one daily case of coronavirus — if any — for much of the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Texas Observer.
The county's ability keeping the virus contained was so notable that NBC News highlighted Starr County as a pandemic success story in April. "We are very proud at this point that our numbers are very low, considering we are an at-risk population and the disparity in medical services and our low socio-economic population," Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal explained to the network. "We rank as one of the poorest counties in the nation. However, that does not deter us."
Among one of the key aspect's of the county's ability to track and contain the virus was its early decision to apply testing to everyone, regardless of insurance, so long as they had a doctor's prescription.
"No discrimination — that is the most important part of our testing," Vasquez said at the time.
But when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) superseded coronavirus restrictions put in place by local municipalities by hastily ordering his state's re-opening, Starr County saw an astonishing 3000% increase in cases between early June and July.
Now, thanks to skyrocketing numbers and extremely limited medical capacity, Starr County doctors will be forced to triage their patients according to who can stay and who will be forced to leave.
"Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones," county judge Eloy Vera announced earlier this week. "This is what we did not want our community to experience."
Incredibly, Starr County's circumstances are not unique, as more and more communities find themselves overwhelmed by coronavirus cases. Earlier this month, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ announced that hospitals would begin applying "crisis care standards" that would help physicians triage which patients would receive what level of medical attention.
On Friday, Vera issued a county-wide stay-at-home order to go in effect until Aug. 10 to help stem the tide of the pandemic. One day earlier, Starr County reported 40 new coronavirus cases over the previous 24 hours.