Slowly, the strength that drained from Irene Morales' body in her summer battle with Covid-19 is returning. What she won't get back are her brother, her sister, her father and her aunt, all taken as the coronavirus has swept through Texas' Rio Grande Valley.
The erasure of Morales' family and Covid-19's ruthlessness also wiped away her indecision about the presidential candidates. Her vote will pay respect to her family; she'll be voting for Joe Biden, she said.
Speaking of President Donald Trump, Morales, 75, of Rio Grande City in Starr County, said: "It's a little disappointing when I hear him say: 'Don't be afraid of Covid. Nothing has happened.' Well, thank God. How lucky for him that he didn't suffer. ... Why have so many other people died? This the true Covid."
Texas opened early voting Tuesday. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs announced 16.9 million people had registered to vote — up 1.8 million from 2016, as of the latest numbers. In the four Rio Grande Valley counties — Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy — registrations are up at least a combined 76,770.
But the numbers looming large in this part of the state are those that tell the story of the toll of the coronavirus.
The four core counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley had logged nearly 70,000 coronavirus cases by Monday; nearly 3,000 people had died. Nearby Webb County, home to Laredo, and Zapata County, both on the border, added more than 14,700 more cases and 303 more deaths.
"There is not one person in Hidalgo County that hasn't been affected by this horrible virus," Hidalgo County Democratic chair Norma Ramirez said. That includes her. The virus killed Sergio Muñoz Sr., a former state legislator who was the county party's vice chair, in July.
For Democrats to tip the election in Texas — the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976 — they'll need improved turnout and more voters from the state's almost all-Latino lower Rio Grande Valley and parts of South Texas. The counties are Democratic strongholds.
Community groups working to register and turn out voters, mostly through phone calls and texts, but also with some door-to-door work, say the virus' devastation has become a motivator. They said Latinos are recognizing not only that their community has been devastated by the disease, but also that the years of inequities they have put up with worsened the impact of the coronavirus in the region.
Unemployment numbers here rose to levels not recorded since before 2000. Vehicle and foot traffic on the international bridges — the area's economic engine — has been curtailed, hitting the border cities' retail sectors that profit from Mexican shoppers.
The area already is far poorer than other parts of the state. It contends with high prevalences of diabetes and obesity, and about 30 percent of adults in three of the counties don't have health insurance. In Willacy County, the rate of uninsured adults is about 22 percent.
"We're messaging in a way that tries to connect with people's sense of hope and possibility," said John Michael Torres, spokesman for LUPE, a community group founded by civil rights leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. "What we faced this past six months exposed what we've been struggling through for decades. ... We can have more, and we should have more."
Shortage of medicine 'shows the inequity is there'
The two weeks that Dr. Sujan Gogu, a family, sports and pain physician, helped manage Covid-19 cases at Harlingen Medical Center were like a war zone, said Gogu, who lives in McAllen in Hidalgo County.
"I would hear 'code blue' every time I was upstairs. It was so often," Gogu said. "There were times in our hospital we didn't have remdesivir," he said, referring to the experimental antiviral drug that was used to treat Trump. "There wasn't enough. ... It shows the inequity is there."
Gogu, a founder of Doctors in Politics, a political action committee that began in April, said he has become increasingly political and Democratic. "I don't think the GOP stands for the values that patients need," he said.
Covid-19 forced José Pablo Rojas, 21, a premed student, to leave school, drop an internship and suspend his work registering voters for the Texas Freedom Network. He, his father, his mother and his brother all were ill from Covid-19. The family regularly cross the border for their medications and care, although his father, a legal resident, went to a hospital in the U.S. fearing that curtailed border crossings might keep them from returning.
"Here in the Valley, the cost of health care is very high. When we deal with health care, most of us say, 'Let's go to Mexico, where $50 covers everything,'" he said.
Rojas' first vote in a presidential race will be for Biden, he said, because "health care is not supposed to be a privilege."
A scramble for turnout
Rosalinda Moyar, 66, of Edinburg in Hidalgo County, lost three friends to the pandemic, including her closest friend of 20 years, who died Sept. 27. They had been bingo buddies. They were getting through the pandemic together by shopping together on senior days at Costco for Lysol and disinfectant wipes, she said.
Moyar has voted only once in her life, when Hillary Clinton ran for president four years ago. She said she is angered that Trump has downplayed the virus, and "now I'm more determined to vote."
Beto O'Rourke energized voters throughout the state in his 2018 run for the Senate, but he underperformed compared to Clinton, who won about 70 percent of the vote to Trump's 30 percent in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said the party's path to victory is to exceed Clinton's performance in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas and to hold on to gains that O'Rourke made in the suburbs and cities.
Because the area is reliably Democratic, local party activity is usually confined to the primaries, but in this general election, "everyone is doing things to get out the vote out there," Rahmann said.
'Trump Train' vs. 'Ridin' with Biden' caravans
The Lower Rio Grande Valley region remains very rural in some places, and rural Hispanics shifted to Trump in 2016. The region also has many residents who work for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose members tend to be more politically conservative.
Local residents are seeing a more aggressive push by Trump supporters in the area, with more "Trump Train" car caravans, including one in Laredo that attracted thousands of people. Democrats have held their own "Ridin' with Biden" caravans.
René Mora, 27, of Laredo, said the coronavirus struck him in March after he shared drinks with his mother and friends. He could barely stand when his brother took him to the emergency room. He is unemployed and owes $8,000 in medical costs from his Covid-19 care.
He said that he still supports Trump and that the media have blown the virus out of proportion. Trump was dealt a bad hand and did the best with what he had, Mora said.
"I don't believe in the victim mentality," he said. "Even though I did get sick and almost died, I'm grateful. It brought my family closer together and made me understand and appreciate my life more."
The presidential race has tightened in Texas. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Friday showed Trump with a 5-point lead, 50 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters. Hispanic likely voters favor Biden by 54 percent to 37 percent; the margin of error for the Hispanic sample is plus or minus 7.4 percentage points.
A poll conducted for Democrats showed them nearly even.
Hidalgo County Republican Party Chair Adrienne Peña-Garza said she expects a strong Hispanic turnout in the region for Trump. She said it was "a bunch of BS" to tie the region's coronavirus crisis and deaths to the election, and she later called questions about Trump's coronavirus response "fake news."
Those who have lost family or friends and are voting for Biden should know that the best is yet to come if Trump returns to office, she said.
Daniela Vento, a violin player with the group Mariachi Azucena, said the band stopped getting calls to perform as the virus canceled events. Instead, it got calls to perform for funerals.
Several of her relatives were sickened by the coronavirus over the summer, including her father and her mother. A grandmother died Aug. 3. She would have turned 81 in November.
Vento said she plans to vote for Biden. "We need someone who will actually care for the citizens and not say 'hey, it is not that big of a deal' when we have family members that died."