Local coronavirus testing yields smooth operations, modest turnout and still-pending results

Though officials had initially said symptoms were required for testing, on Saturday morning local health officials in Marfa encouraged all interested residents to get tested regardless of symptoms shown.  Newspaper Editor-in-Chief Maisie Crow took the opportunity to get tested and make a portrait of her experience in order to respect other individuals’ privacy, while still reflecting the experience of being tested for our readers. Even though Crow and others who were tested were promised results within 72 hours at most, no results have been received. Photo by Maisie Crow.

MARFA — When the governor announced a program of temporary drive-through testing sites across Texas and dispatched 1,200 members of the Texas National Guard to carry out the mission last week, some were glad to see Marfa, Presidio, Alpine and Terlingua included. Local doctors and government officials have often cited the lack of available testing when talking about the zero confirmed cases of coronavirus in the tri-county; it is why they presume there may be undiagnosed cases in the area.

Judge Cinderela Guevara called the local testing a “proactive defense of public health for the entire community” when she announced last weekend’s testing dates. She had heard about it from the governor’s office late Tuesday night, giving the local counties just over three days to set up and let residents know when, where and how to get tested.

A hotline soon sprung up, and residents were told to call it and provide information about symptoms in order to get an appointment. But as the Big Bend Gazette first reported, those on the other end of the line were providing inaccurate information to some, confusing an already rapid roll out.

Judge Guevara was told there would be somewhere around 75 tests at each of the four sites. On Saturday, 64 residents in Marfa were tested and 51 in Alpine. The next day, with fewer hours of testing, 42 were tested in Presidio and 26 in Terlingua.

“This is a good turnout,” Major John Hughes remarked last Saturday morning outside the USO in Marfa. Their group of guardsmen had been in Van Horn the day before, and from noon to five, they had 18 people turn out. In Marfa, they had already tested 20 residents by 11 a.m. The leftover tests from Van Horn had been brought to Marfa, increasing their total available tests from the 75 tests previously announced.

National Guardsmen, whose work normally ranges from piloting to dentistry, worked on the ground in Marfa’s USO building to coordinate test administration for the pop-up drive-through coronavirus testing site.

Though the guardsmen that The Big Bend Sentinel spoke to had never performed medical operations, they were glad to be able to contribute and ran their operation tidily. They drove to West Texas from their base in Fort Worth, coming from various roles in aircraft maintenance, piloting, transportation and dental services. “This is totally out of our job description, but we’re loving every minute of it,” said Chief Master Sergeant Trey McKinney.

Even with smooth operations from the guard, the hangup was in getting the word out. “We’re getting better at this, we’re streamlining processes,” Hughes said, but, “It’s a small community. People are nervous, people don’t know what it is, people don’t know where to call. It’s a lot of barriers to entry, so we want to knock down those barriers.”

Presidio County Emergency Management Coordinator and Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitschke and Marfa EMS Director Bert Lagarde were on the sidewalk, soliciting residents to take advantage of the opportunity to be tested. “They were pretty lenient here in Marfa, because anyone who wanted to get tested got tested,” Lagarde said after the event. “The fire chief and myself were standing out there saying, ‘Hey, go get tested.’” Lagarde and Mitschke also encouraged their own emergency response staff to get tested, even without symptoms, due to their regular contact with local residents and the infirm. There were plenty of tests available, and a good number were left over when the drive-through site closed down Saturday evening.

For those who did take the chance, it started with a call: those who wanted to be tested provided personal information and answered a series of questions on the hotline about whether or not they had various symptoms. While the state had said two symptoms should be exhibited, in Marfa, none were required. Callers were then given an appointment, though if the line was empty, there was no need to wait for that appointment time.

“We need you to have an appointment so we can put you in the system,” Major Hughes explained. “If we were rolling heavy through here, that system would work. But our throughput in small towns – we just want whatever’s beneficial for the people,” he said. They adjusted operations to let callers proceed through even before appointment times.

After calling, the person getting tested pulled into the alley north of the USO. Pressing their Texas ID or driver’s license to the window, an officer read off their details into a walkie talkie. The car windows stayed up, and a guardswoman gestured the patient on to the second station. Another guardsman, in full body personal protective equipment, had the patient crack a window, pushing a COVID-19 pamphlet through. Folded inside was a kleenex and a facemask. The patient being tested was instructed to blow their nose and put on the mask.

At the last station, the patient’s nostrils were swabbed, reaching all the way back to scrape against the tissue between the nose and mouth. “It’s ten seconds out of your entire day, so I promise it’s not bad,” the last guardsman said before administering the test.

The guardsman swiped one swab in the left nostril, then another in the right as the patient tilted their head far back, still seated in their vehicle. That was it. From there, tests were kept in coolers, later whisked away by highway patrol or game wardens who could carry them swiftly to state labs.

A National Guardsman puts on a face shield as part of his full body personal protective equipment before administering a test in Marfa on Saturday. The National Guard visited four local cities, including Presidio, to test for coronavirus last weekend.

The paper the patient received explains, “You have been swabbed for the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Complete test results are expected 24-48 hours from the time your specimen was taken. In some cases, the wait can be up to 72 hours.”

Lagarde said he attended a Zoom discussion with Dr. Ekta Escovar this week, who said test results might take a little bit longer because of the sheer number of tests arriving at labs.

The EMS director hasn’t received his results as of Wednesday, four days –– or over 96 hours –– since his test. Neither has his staff, or other patients with whom The Big Bend Sentinel spoke.

In addition to the state providing results to individuals, Judge Guevara said she will be immediately notified by the Texas Department of State Health Services if any positive tests come up. Thus far, she has not heard anything.