Government officials weigh “reopening” the economy

MARFA — As the country stays home during the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump has claimed “absolute authority” to reopen the country, states on the east and west coasts are forming multi-state organizations to coordinate their efforts, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he will release a plan on Friday to restart Texas.

Abbott said that the focus will be on protecting lives while protecting livelihoods, saying, “We can do both.” He told the press, “We want to open up, but we want to open up safely,” acknowledging that testing will need to be a component of reopening.

On testing, Dr. Ekta Escovar, from the Big Bend Regional Medical Center and the local COVID-19 task force, said during a media event, “If you look at where Texas falls based on tests per million people, Texas is right above Guam, and Guam doesn’t have a lot of information.”

Texas has fluctuated between the lowest rankings in terms of how many tests have been administered per million residents. Meanwhile, it is among the top ten states for confirmed coronavirus cases, with over 15,000 cases at press time.

“Considering Texas is a very populous state, we’re actually as a state not doing a great job of testing,” Escovar said.

Testing has become a chicken and egg situation where under-testing leads to lower confirmed case numbers and lower confirmed case numbers lead to a perceived lower need for testing. “We’re really not testing enough if our caseload is this low,” Escovar said.

Escovar said that death rates are more accurate, and told Jeff Davis County Commissioner Todd Jagger that those were the numbers to watch.

“As a rural community, our most difficult period, our most vulnerable period, is actually going to be as the case numbers are dropping,” Escovar said. When El Paso and Midland-Odessa start lifting their restrictions, that’s when we are going to be at the most vulnerable, she explained.

Escovar said, “The current data from previous outbreaks of flu show that rural areas get hit two weeks after restrictions in urban areas get lifted.”

While awaiting the Friday announcement from the governor, Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza said, “The City of Marfa is currently reviewing the governor’s actions. The City of Marfa will continue to monitor the situation closely as the emergency declarations are set to expire.”

The city’s emergency orders have been renewed through the end of April, with Councilmember Raul Lara last week urging the council to keep restrictions in place for that time, instead of letting up or adding exceptions.

At the media event, Escovar was asked about any current plans for reopening the tri-county area. “We don’t have any of the serology 15 minute tests in this area. We haven’t even hit the peak of COVID in Texas,” the doctor replied. “I think it is irresponsible to make a plan of how to lift restrictions when we haven’t even seen the worst it’s gonna get.”

Across the country, the capabilities of tests have expanded due to rapid research and development. “The fact that we have the capability to test for antibodies is huge,” Escovar said. “That’s a really good jump in a really good direction. But the tests are still a ‘yes or no,’ yes you’ve been exposed to COVID because you’re building antibodies, or no you haven’t been exposed yet.”

By identifying antibodies, doctors can determine whether someone has contracted COVID-19.  But “antibodies don’t mean immunity,” Escovar stressed. “We’re not sure what level of antibodies confers immunity, and we don’t know how long that immunity lasts.” A reopening plan could be constructed around serology tests that say how long people have immunity to COVID-19, but those tests are not widely available.

Escovar told the event attendees and public officials that local reopening plans were nonexistent, saying, “Absolutely there’s no plan yet, because it doesn’t make sense to have a plan. We haven’t even seen the worst of it.”