RGV Tested

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A lot changed in the weeks and months following the global pandemic sweeping into our country and community. Naturally, health care was one of the most affected industries.

Hospitals, clinics, and extended care facilities, like nursing homes, all underwent a metamorphosis to keep operations running while also trying to keep employees and patients safe from the virus.

Even though every aspect of life has been impacted, at the end of the day, COVID-19 is a public health crisis — a moment when every corner of society is called to curb potential sickness and death.

“People are a little reluctant to be around healthcare workers. It’s a paradox because people are very thankful for the work of healthcare workers,” Dr. Michael Dobbs said. “I can imagine that people who have coronavirus are feeling very marginalized, at the edge of society. And unclear when they can get back to their lives.”

Dobbs, who practices as a neurologist and serves as the Chief Medical Officer for UT Health RGV, spoke on how UT Health RGV clinics adjusted on the fly to the evolving guidelines while still serving the community.

“UT Health RGV has already been making strides in medicine before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dobbs said. “We were implementing telemedicine in fields like behavioral and mental health and we were looking at a strategy to do a lot more. And of course when [the pandemic] hit the whole healthcare enterprise, we had to fully implement telemedicine rather quickly. We turned most of our clinics into telemedicine.”

Physicians looking to see patients also used distance medicine when available and hospitals postponed elective surgeries to free up space in case of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

As restrictions began to loosen in the state, UT Health has begun to reintroduce some in-person appointments. But Dobbs said a return to pre-COVID practices might not happen.

“What I anticipate we’ll be doing is a hybrid between telemedicine and some face-to-face [meetings],” he said. “I don’t know where it will balance out in the end, but I don’t think it will be likely that it will go back in healthcare to less telemedicine like we were before.”

So what are telemedicine and telehealth?

According to ChironHealth.com, telemedicine is not a new concept. In the 1950s, a few hospital systems and university medical centers tried to find ways to use telephones as a way to disseminate health information.

“In one of the first successes, two health centers in Pennsylvania were able to transmit radiologic images over the phone.”

With the advancement of technology and the concerns of the SARS-2 Coronavirus 2020 was the perfect time to see the rise of telehealth which covers a broader scope of medical and health communications.

ChironHealth.com goes on to explain the difference.

“Telehealth is different from telemedicine because it refers to a broader scope of remote health care services than telemedicine. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.”

This means CDC and even county communications via video feeds could also fall into this category. In a way, all of us have been exposed to telehealth over recent months.

Local COVID-19 timeline

The first case of COVID-19 in the state was detected on March 4 in the DFW metroplex.

A lag in testing availability hindered the RGV at first. It wasn’t until March 13 that  KRGV reported testing had arrived in Harlingen. The first positive case wasn’t reported until six days later in Cameron County’s Rancho Viejo community March 19.

In the early weeks, testing was limited to those showing specific symptoms: either high fever or dry cough with other lesser symptoms.

On March 26 the four-county Rio Grande Valley was all under shelter-at-home orders and prohibited large gatherings. Restaurants were mandated to close dining rooms and transition to curbside pick-up. Only “essential” businesses remained open with social distancing as the new norm.

On March 27, UTRGV opened testing centers to increase testing capacity. The UT System — including UT Health RGV and UT Health Science Centers around the country — have come together to provide not just testing but test results.

Dobbs explained the institution’s commitment to serving the community.

“Here at UT Health RGV we are very vision-focused and our mission is to provide advanced academic healthcare for the Rio Grande Valley region,” he said. “We also have the advantage that we are a little bit small so we can turn quickly.”

As state and local governments requested more testing, mobile sites opened up, UT Health RGV and UTRGV led the way.

“We went from nothing to one of the major testing sites in the state in a few weeks,” Dobbs said.

The first COVID-19 death was reported April 4 in Willacy County.

Cases continued to rise over the next couple of months, reaching over 1,000 total cases by mid-May. The silver lining of course is that the death toll has been relatively low. Come June, less than 50 residents had perished due to complications from the virus.

However, a majority of deaths in Cameron County can be traced to two long-term care facilities. Windsor Atrium and Veranda Nursing home both had over 10 cases turn fatal.

Testing capability reached new heights that month which also meant 45 new infections reported in Hidalgo County and 69 Valleywide on June 4, the largest single-day increase at the time of publication.

The road ahead

While the governor’s office has committed to opening the country and getting the economy back rolling, remember the guidelines that have always remained.

Wash your hands. This is a virus that lingers and is spread primarily through touching your face after touching infected surfaces.

Simply wearing a mask and keeping clean could keep you or someone you love out of an uncertain and potentially deadly situation.

Once this passes, Dobbs says many lessons should be taken away.

“One thing that we can do is we can be aware that there are diseases out there that can emerge and can cause a huge amount of disruption to society and we need to maintain a state of continuous readiness,” he said.

Have you been tested for COVID-19? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.