As Texas struggles with a fierce new wave of infections that is overloading hospitals and challenging its biggest cities, one of the hardest-hit areas is in the Rio Grande Valley, where the close-knit family culture of generations of border families is one of several things that have helped fuel an alarming new spread.
Nearly 1 in 10 people infected with the virus in Texas is in Hidalgo County, which on Thursday surpassed its previous record with 1,274 new cases. More than 150 people have died.
As soon as the outbreak reached the border, I volunteered to report on the story because I know the area well. My family moved to the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-1990s, when I was 16. My parents, two sisters and their offspring all live on the same block outside of McAllen.
The virus has struck one of the poorest regions in the country, where most people cannot afford to stay home from work. The Valley, as locals call it, sits on the border with Tamaulipas, Mexico, and is dotted with colonias, orphan communities that have sprung up outside the cities, most without paved roads or sewer connections.
Seemingly overnight, people’s aunts, uncles, grandmas and cousins are falling victim, one by one.
“Three months ago very few knew anyone who had contracted the virus,” said Jim Darling, the mayor of McAllen, the largest city in Hidalgo County. “Now, you can’t find people who don’t know anyone who isn’t infected. It completely flipped.”
I never expected that I would be part of this story. The day before I boarded a plane from New York, my youngest sister sent me a text message that froze me in place.
“Brother, it looks like all of the Sandovales have Covid,” it read in Spanish.