April 8, 2020

Mystery Trend

Coronavirus Hasn't Been as Harsh Up to Now Based on Stats
in Major Texas Border Areas with Strict Isolation Enforcement


The curiously low coronavirus rates in the three largest border counties in Texas seem to defy concerns about the disease having a more adverse impact on minorities while raising the specter that the statewide count of confirmed cases and deaths is being deflated inadvertently.

A relatively mild spread of COVID-19 at the opposite ends of the Rio Grande in the Lone Star State could be a function of substantially stricter enforcement of stay-at-home restrictions that local leaders had imposed before Governor Greg Abbott ordered the application of the same basic standards statewide last week.

Or the coronavirus numbers in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley could be an illusion that reflects a lack of testing for the killer disease in areas that are heavily Hispanic and significantly poorer on average than other parts of Texas. It's conceivable that some people who fall ill with standard coronavirus symptoms in those particular areas are reluctant to be tested if they are in the United States without legal documentation.

The Johns Hopkins University running tally of the COVID-19 had Texas with a total of 9,569 positive tests by mid-afternoon on Wednesday with 180 deaths. In a state with a population of nearly 29 million a year ago, one in every 3,030 residents had come down with the coronavirus that had killed one person here for every 161,088 based on the count by prestigious private institution in Baltimore.

But El Paso County hadn't reported a single death from the coronavirus at that same point in time in a dramatic statistical anomaly for a place where more than 840,000 reside in the state's westernmost reach as the Rio Grande's northern anchor in Texas. One in every 5,493 El Pasoan had tested positive for COVID-19 by the middle of the afternoon today according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Hidalgo and Cameron counties had only had one fatal case each as the early evening approached in one of the fast-growing areas in the nation with a combined population of 1.3 million at the state's southeastern tip where the Rio Grande separates Texas from Mexico.

Only one in every 7,616 Hidalgo residents had coronavirus cases confirmed - a rate that's less than half of the statewide average. The Cameron County where there are half as many people was closed to the statewide norm at one positive test for 3,923 residents there at the same exact snapshot in time.

The combined rate in the two counties where most of the Rio Grande Valley's population is based was one coronavirus case for every 5,811 people. But the contagion had claimed only one life for every 642,193 people in Hidalgo and Cameron counties combined heading into Wednesday night. That is four times smaller than the statewide coronavirus case and body count in Texas where the pandemic has been drastically higher in other major population centers with comparable amounts of people or more.

But the apparent trend has a major exception in Webb County that's anchored by the city of Laredo more than 200 miles northwest of Brownsville that serves as the Cameron County seat. The coronavirus has hit Webb County harder so far than it has the state as a whole with a rate of one confirmed COVID-19 case for 2,035 people there by late this afternoon. The virus has killed one of almost every 46,000 - a death rate that's almost four times higher than the statewide average.

The Webb County numbers are more in line with warnings about a more intense spread in areas where most of the residents aren't white. While Latinos account for about 90 percent of the populations in El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron counties when they're calculated together, more than 95 percent of the people in Webb County were Hispanic when the 2010 census was taken.

The surprisingly low coronavirus totals in Hidalgo County where the cities of McAllen and Edinburg are located could be the culmination of a more concerted effort by law enforcement to ensure maximum compliance with the state and local stay-at-home mandates that have temporarily closed businesses that aren't deemed essential.

Police in some Rio Grande Valley cities have set up checkpoints as a result of a local rule that prevents more than two people from traveling together in the same vehicle. Other restrictions in the border counties have appeared to be stronger than the Abbott order that ostensibly superceded them.

President Donald Trump, who's highly unpopular in border areas that are dominated by Democrats, acknowledged on Tuesday night that the coronavirus had appeared to be taking a worse toll on African-Americans than whites.

But a group of congressional members from caucuses for Hispanics, blacks and Asian Americans sounded the alarm on Wednesday for the Trump administration to take steps to guarantee that there will be no "racial or ethnic health disparities" in terms of testing and treatment for COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro - a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus - teamed up with a pair of California colleagues in Democratic U.S. Reps. Judy Chu and Karen Bass in a letter that they fired off to the White House today. The trio contended that the federal Centers for Disease Control had been keeping details on the virus spread across racial lines under wrap.

“Based on early regional data that is available, we are alarmed to learn that the virus is disproportionately affecting communities of color," the letter said. "Unfortunately, the CDC has not released nationwide demographic data, which hinders our efforts to understand these emerging trends."

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside


Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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