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'We're not sitting back waiting': Val Verde County preparing for potential coronavirus impact with fewer resources than major cities

The border community is taking a largely-proactive approach in suppressing the coronavirus as the first cases are confirmed.

DEL RIO, Texas — On Saturday, officials reported the fifth case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Val Verde County. Local leaders say they had already been preparing for what seemed inevitable. 

“It's changed our lives just like it has everybody else,” said County Judge Lewis Owens, who has been working with Del Rio city leaders, Border Patrol officials and first responders. 

Val Verde County is a rural region of about 50,000 residents that sits along the U.S.-Mexico Border. As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the world and cases continue to surge in urban areas, more rural communities like this one are trying to adjust with few resources available to them. 

“I think the issues that we're facing here...we are sort of far away from everything,” Owens said. 

Owens said they’ve already seen a lack of coronavirus-testing kits.

“We had 21 test kits, and then we were looking for another 25 that were coming in. Those came in, but we were short on test kits again," he said, adding that they ran out on Friday. 

He said the Val Verde Regional Medical Center has been preparing for a few weeks for the potential of a massive outbreak of the virus.

“They're taking the proactive approach,” Owens said. 

Specifically, he said they’re prepared to convert a building near the hospital to a clinic if hospital reaches capacity.

“If we begin to have more cases, they could open that up to where there’s 30 to 40 rooms and they're completely isolated from the hospital,” Owens said. 

Another concern is a lack of protective gear for medical staff and first responders, in addition to other medical equipment that would be needed to treat dozens of patients at one time.

“We don't have the ventilators. We don't have that equipment here if something was to happen in masses."

Owens said the county and City of Del Rio are taking other proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus within the community. For example, he said they’ve limited the number of customers there can be in grocery stores at one time, as well as set a curfew for anyone under 17 years old. 

Owens said they have also been distributing disinfectant to residents for free, having handed out 9,000 gallons to residents of the county on Friday alone. 

They’ve hired De Nora Neptune, a global disinfection company that's been  disinfecting frac water in the Permian Basin for over a decade.

The bleach solution was first developed to be used in the oilfields.

“It's a mobile bleach factory. So that factory can be taken out to a frac and disinfect large quantities of water,” said De Nora Nepture President Alex Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is referring to one of the company's 14 Mobile Treatment Units, one of which can make of 25,000 gallons of the bleach solution a day.   

He said the solution is a low concentration of sodium hypo-chlorite or bleach that’s created by using “food-grade salt, water and electricity.”

Gonzalez said the bleach disinfectant can be used to spray on surfaces to kill the coronavirus.

“The CDC has released in all their documentations that an effective method for killing viruses and bacteria is bleach,” Gonzales said. 

This week, a stream of cars lined up at the Val Verde County fairgrounds— residents bringing containers that county crews filled up with the bleach solution.

“I carry a bottle in my truck. I spray the handles at the gas station, I spray door handles,” Gonzalez said.  “The sodium hypo-chlorite will kill bacteria and viruses on contact. So it's a very effective way to disinfect.”

Gonzalez said the MTU has also been deployed to Fort Bend County near Houston and will be in Maverick County this weekend.

“This is so Texan. If you think about the way we're approaching this, we're not sitting back waiting for COVID to come get us,” said Gonzalez. “We're eliminating and killing it before it has a chance to do anything.”

Owens said bringing the MTU to Val Verde County was unanimously supported by county commissioners. He said the MTU costs the county $8,000 a day.

“I don't think any of us at the end of the day are going to be completely prepared for this, and we're learning as we go,” Owens said. “Rest assured, the county, the city, we're all doing whatever it's going to take. We will do it to make sure that our citizens are safe.”

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