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Local leaders look to recovery as South Texas emerges from pandemic
Six months ago, batches of the emergency-authorized coronavirus vaccine were shipped to regional hospitals and clinics for distribution to the general public.
Today, an estimated forty percent of the South Texas population has received shots that will greatly reduce the risk of dying from COVID-19. Mask mandates and restrictions on crowding have been lifted, and businesses and schools have reopened.
Local government leaders, emergency responders and health care professionals are assessing the extent of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as South Texas prepares to celebrate Independence Day with weekend festivals that will include public gathering in large numbers for the first time in over a year.
Vaccine administration has all but stopped at Frio Regional Hospital in Pearsall, now that the doses are available through retail store pharmacies, at rural health clinics and other health care facilities nationwide.
The vaccines, whether Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson brands, have been offered free of charge to all Americans regardless of income, insurance, family status, employment or residency.
At Frio Regional, an initial surge in requests for vaccines in January and February this year saw staff taking reservations for as many as a thousand doses a day. That number began falling within weeks, however, and when requests for vaccines dipped to 250 per week, cancellations and ‘no-shows’ were becoming more frequent, according to Hospital CEO John Hughson.
“At the last count, we had twenty vaccines scheduled, and only half showed up for their shots,” Hughson said Friday. “We have mainly stopped vaccinating now, and we are actively trying to eliminate our stock.”
Hughson agrees that South Texas may consider itself on a path to recovery from the worst of the pandemic crisis, adding that admission of COVID-19 cases at Frio Hospital appears to have stopped.
“We haven’t had a COVID patient in about two weeks,” the hospital CEO said. “The cases we had recently were not acute.”
Hughson said he could not immediately confirm whether any of the coronavirus patients treated recently at the hospital had been vaccinated.
“We can report today that our volume is very low,” Hughson added. “The acuity is also very low. The trending data from Methodist Hospital in San Antonio shows that their volume [of coronavirus cases] is also far different from a year ago.
“We are moving out of a crisis,” he said. “We are coming down from a heightened sense of emergency.”
Hughson said he has come to accept the decreased use of masks in public places as indicative of people’s confidence in the recovery. Many who are fully vaccinated, he said, no longer consider masks necessary, but some members of the public have regarded mask mandates as overly restrictive.
“People want to politicize it,” the hospital executive said of the onetime requirement that all people wear masks in public. “They aren’t using their heads. I agree that masks were not perfect, but they reduced the risk of transmission.”
Hughson compares the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic to some extent with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and points to the general public’s agreement on the principal preventive measure as contributing significantly to a reduction of contagion risks.
“AIDS was the last new virus that really took the world by storm,” he said of the global impact of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome that was caused by the human immunodeficiency virus transmitted by blood contact. “People generally accepted the prophylaxis. Why not masks, if they also help reduce the risk of virus transmission in the case of this new virus?”
“What we have now is just going to be the new normal,” Hughson said last week of the virus dangers and the state of the region’s recovery. “Yes, I think we are very much on our way out of a crisis. People have to determine what is the new normal for them, and some people have always been determined not to wear masks.
“Some people will still catch the virus,” Hughson said. “It may be much like the risk of tuberculosis… It will always be around and there will be some people who have it. The vaccines don’t prevent us from catching COVID-19, but they greatly reduce the risk of us dying from it.”
At Dilley City Hall, Mayor Gilbert Eguia said this week that he is pleased the community came through the pandemic without heavy losses, but acknowledged that some elderly residents had succumbed to the coronavirus during 2020.
“We lost some of our most vulnerable friends and family members, and we grieve as a community,” Eguia said. “In some cases, family members were not able to say their goodbyes, and that is a tragedy that is hard for a small town like ours. We all know a family or a neighbor’s family that was affected by the virus.
“The losses could have been much greater and the tragedy much more severe, but I believe that our community’s collective observance of the health and safety protocols was what saved us from the worst of it,” the mayor said. “Businesses had to close, students had to stay home from school, and people could not gather in the ways that a South Texas community does. For a time, it felt as though the very life had been drained out of our town, but we always believed there was an end in sight.
“I think we can all agree that the end of the pandemic is much more a realistic concept now, but we cannot let our guard down,” Eguia added. “Families are going to get together, and stores will be busy again, but we have to be aware that the virus is not gone. It is a threat and it will continue to be a threat for a long time to come.”
Eguia was elected this year after a campaign that was stifled by pandemic-related restrictions. Unable to host rallies or address groups of citizens, the onetime city councilor took to social media to spread his message of new beginnings in economic development, community growth and a need for transparency in local government.
“Social media really took over everybody’s life, and it kept us in touch during the darkest times,” the mayor said. “As we come out of this period of fear and shelter, we have to learn how to interact with each other again, to bring life back to our community, support our struggling businesses and take advantage of new opportunities.
“Yes, I think we can say that we are coming out of the pandemic, but we are bruised by it, figuratively speaking,” Eguia said. “We all learned to appreciate the things that we have taken for granted for too long. I hope that the lessons we learned will stick with us, and I hope we all understand that being prepared for whatever lies ahead is our best weapon in defending the life of our town.”
In La Salle County, preparations are underway for a two-day community festival this weekend to celebrate Independence Day. Organizers expect the event to become the largest public gathering in over a year. The 2020 County Fair & Wild Hog Cook-Off was the last event held in the county for large crowds before pandemic-related restrictions took effect. The fair was canceled this year because of ongoing concerns over health and safety.
La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS spokesman Captain Sean Wallace said this week that he believes the public is fully aware of the risk of virus contagion at crowded events and that common sense will prevail.
“We hope that people observe common safety measures,” the captain said. “According to our estimates, over forty percent of the people in La Salle County are vaccinated, and with the information we have from the public health service, the emergency management coordinator and the Centers for Disease Control, and as transparent as county officials have been, we believe that the event will go safely as long as people follow guidelines.”
The captain stopped short of agreeing that all risks of coronavirus contagion are minimized and cautioned against crowding at the county fairgrounds during the weekend festival.
“People should be aware of the dangers,” Wallace said on Tuesday. “They should try to stay in their family groups.
“It just comes down to responsibility,” Wallace said. “Parents need to be responsible for their minors.”
La Salle County Sheriff Anthony Zertuche said he believes the local population has become accustomed to taking precautions as the region emerges from the pandemic.
“They’re transitioning well,” Sheriff Zertuche said on Tuesday of the public’s gradual acclimatization to a post-COVID culture. “Small groups of people are still being very cautious, especially in crowded places such as stores and gas stations. They’re still wearing masks in public places, and that’s their choice as a matter of common sense.
“Yes, we have concerns about crowding at the festival,” the sheriff said, “just knowing the effects of the coronavirus, that it’s something serious that everybody should consider. We can’t force people to wear masks, but we hope that people use common-sense measures and stick with family groups.”
Sheriff Zertuche said he understands the community’s readiness to put the pandemic into the past.
“We have to move on,” the sheriff said. “We have to get on with our lives. There is a large percentage of the community that has been vaccinated, but we also saw a lot of people coming to La Salle County from further away to have their shots. It was easier for them here than in their home towns. Some people even took flights to come here.
“I believe that common sense has to prevail,” Zertuche said. “If anyone has any sign of illness, they should stay home and isolate. It comes down to making smart decisions.
“We are seeing the community pushing toward some type of normalcy,” the sheriff said. “This festival will represent people enjoying the company that they were used to celebrating with. This weekend will attract quite a few people. I hope we don’t see a rise in coronavirus cases after this.”