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Health workers prepare to administer a COVID-19 test at a drive-through testing area in Central Texas (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman). Health workers prepare to administer a COVID-19 test at a drive-through testing area in Central Texas (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman).

Health workers prepare to administer a COVID-19 test at a drive-through testing area in Central Texas (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman).

By Brandon Mulder October 16, 2020

COVID-19 fatalities in the Rio Grande Valley double the state average

Douglas Emhoff, husband of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, joined Democratic leaders in the Rio Grande Valley this month helping to boost the Biden campaign among Latino voters.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, was among the Democratic contingent, and in remarks introducing Emhoff, Gonzalez highlighted the region’s most pressing issue: the coronavirus.

"The Rio Grande Valley is 4.7% of the entire state population, but it represents 17% of the deaths of our state. And that’s due to the lack of leadership that we have at the top of the ticket, and only we can change that," Gonzalez said according to The (McAllen) Monitor.

Gonzalez’s office did not return a request for comment seeking the source of these figures, but crunching numbers posted by the Texas Department of State Health Services show that the four counties that comprise the Rio Grande Valley — Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy — do represent a significantly disproportionate number of COVID-19 fatalities.

Underlying conditions

The latest Census Bureau estimates put the Valley’s population at nearly 1.4 million — about 4.7% of the state’s 29 million people. As of Oct. 5, the day Gonzalez made the statement, the four counties posted a combined 2,815 deaths resulting from the coronavirus, which was about 16.8% of the state’s 16,709 deaths.

The death rate in the four counties is more than double that of the state. Across Texas, 2% of those who had contracted the coronavirus have died. In the Rio Grande Valley, that number is 4.5%, according to state data.

The high fatality rate is not just because of its proximity to the border or its predominantly Hispanic population, said Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez. Other populous border areas in Texas with similar demographics, like El Paso and Webb counties, have posted fatality rates close to the state average. So why is the Rio Grande Valley a statistical outlier?

"Our population’s baseline health is poorer than anywhere else in the state," Melendez said.

"We’re the poorest, we’re the fattest, we’re the most diabetic," he said.

The region has struggled for years with certain community health metrics. The estimated prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in the Valley is 16% compared to around 11% in Texas. The obesity rate in the four-county region is 3% higher than the state average. Both diseases and their corollary conditions, like hypertension, are some of the underlying medical conditions that increase risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exacerbating the Valley’s healthcare woes is the region’s high number of uninsured people. More than 31% of Valley residents lack health insurance, a number roughly the same as those living in poverty, according to Census Bureau estimates. By comparison, 21% of Texans are without health insurance.

Combine this with the region’s limited primary care options — the region also ranks low for primary care clinics per capita — and people are more likely to seek a doctor when they are sicker, said Dr. John Krouse, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

"Rather than going to a physician early in the course of a disease, I think people wait until symptoms get worse — they try to manage at home without professional medical care," Krouse said. "By the time they do present to providers, their disease is more advanced."

"The later people seek care for whatever disease it is, the worse the outcomes will be," Krouse said.

Layer all these contributing factors and it’s no surprise COVID-19 is devastating the region, Melendez said.

"What we’ve learned is that we have a great need for more primary care services or preventative health services," he said. "I think that our area was less prepared than other areas that have similar ethnographic makeup because our primary care services, our preventative medicine services were that inadequate."

The situation may have been different, Melendez said, had voters in Hidalgo County not rejected a bond proposition that would have created a hospital district by increasing property taxes. That proposition failed twice in the last six years, once in 2014 and again in 2016.

Both Melendez and Krouse agree that the pandemic has emphasized the region’s stark shortcomings in healthcare. The prevalence of diabetes, obesity and hypertension in the Rio Grande Valley has long been known, but the pandemic’s severity has amplified the importance of controlling these kinds of comorbidities at the community level, they said.

"I think there needs to be an agreed upon solution to public financing to healthcare," Krouse said. "We really need to have a broad solution on how to improve those social determinants in order to get this community healthier."

Our ruling

Gonzalez said that while the Rio Grande Valley comprises just 4.7% of the state’s population, "it represents 17% of the (coronavirus) deaths of our state."

State figures show that this statement is accurate, and experts demonstrate how underlying healthcare shortcomings in the Rio Grande Valley have contributed to this result.

We rate this claim True.

Our Sources

The Monitor, Kamala Harris’ husband makes campaign stop in Democratic stronghold RGV, Oct. 5, 2020

Interview with Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, Oct. 14, 2020

Texas Department of State Health Services COVID-19 Dashboard, accessed Oct. 12, 2020

U.S. Census Population Estimates, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, People with Certain Medical Conditions, Oct. 6, 2020

Interview with Dr. John Krouse, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, Oct. 15, 2020

Unidos Contra La Diabetes, The Levels, Trends, and Impact of Diabetes in the RGV, accessed Oct. 15, 2020

KVEO-TV, Hidalgo County voters overwhelmingly reject Healthcare District, Nov. 9, 2016

County Health Rankings and Roadmap, Texas state report, accessed Oct. 15, 2020

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COVID-19 fatalities in the Rio Grande Valley double the state average

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