May 27, 2020 458 PM
FAR WEST TEXAS — As a spokesperson for the Reeves County Hospital in Pecos, Venetta Seals has found herself participating in a grim new tradition during the coronavirus crisis: Going on KIUN radio in Pecos to explain to worried locals why her hospital’s coronavirus numbers are so different than those reported by the state.
For weeks in April, Texas’ state coronavirus tracker showed there were no cases in Reeves County, where the City of Pecos sits. But the hospital, meanwhile, said there were at least three, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.
At press time this week, the Texas Department of State Health Services is now reporting at least seven cases in Reeves County. But that figure is still eclipsed by the hospital’s own count, which is now over a dozen, Seals said.
Reeves County isn’t the only place facing such a discrepancy, either. On Saturday, a news release on DSHS letterhead announced the first positive coronavirus case in Hudspeth County, home to Sierra Blanca. The patient is a woman in her 20s whose infection was said to be “community related.”
That same day, Presidio County’s first case was announced and deemed “travel related.” But Presidio’s case was not reported on the state’s daily coronavirus tracker until Monday — a days-long wait for the state’s reporting to catch up to its data. DSHS, which runs the state’s coronavirus tracker, did not add the Hudspeth County case to its official count until Tuesday.
In Reeves County, the explanation for the discrepancy might be simple enough. As Seals has explained in interviews and on the radio, health officials are using residency to determine where coronavirus cases are counted.
The Texas Department of State Health Services decides whether patients are “here or someplace else,” Seals said in a phone interview last week. And in at least one instance, Reeves County saw their count climb after a local resident was “tested in another county.”
But the confusion highlights broader issues of transparency during the coronavirus pandemic, as DSHS has struggled to explain how it’s tabulating data or even what constitutes a coronavirus “test.”
As Texas’ testing count climbed, most Texans assumed — fairly or not — that the state was only counting live viral tests that determine whether someone is currently infected.
Then, earlier this month, The Texas Observer reported that the state was actually mixing antibody tests (which determine whether someone has antibodies indicating if they’ve ever been exposed to coronavirus) with the rest of its results. While both tests have value, only viral tests can show the spread of coronavirus in real-time — which was ostensibly the information state leaders were relying on to determine when and how to “reopen” the economy. An epidemiologist told the magazine that conflating the two “would change our whole understanding of when infection events were happening.”
A few days later, Governor Greg Abbott was asked about the issue during a press conference. “The answer is ‘no,’” he told reporters. “They are not commingling those numbers.”
The Texas Observer responded with an email from DSHS, in which a spokesperson confirmed that, in fact, “some antibody results are included in our current testing totals and case counts.” Several state and national outlets, including The Atlantic magazine, have since confirmed the Observer’s reporting.
The DSHS subsequently updated their coronavirus tracker adding an “antibody tests” category under the number of “total tests” — which showed that total testing numbers had in fact included antibody tests. Yet the agency has continued conflating the two.
Only the total number of tests and antibody tests, and not the number of viral tests — which is what most people think of when they hear “coronavirus testing” — are included on the main coronavirus tracking page. At the bottom of the page is a new hyperlink for “COVID-19 test and hospital data.”
That page breaks the testing data down further, showing (at press time) that there were around 805,000 viral tests and, around 80,500 antibody tests forand a total of around 905,000 tests. If those numbers seem wrong, it’s because the agency is comparing data from different dates.
With viral and antibody tests only adding up to around 885,500, rather than the reported total of 905,000, it is unclear what the remaining 19,500 tests are. The agency did not respond to requests for comment on this discrepancy.
The coronavirus tracker, which state officials initially updated each day at noon, is now slated for daily updates at 3:30 p.m. Yet officials routinely miss that deadline, and, for unclear reasons, there has been an inconsistent and days-long wait to add some cases to the tracker, including the case in Hudspeth County.
Other cases, like those in Reeves County, are likely being omitted because someone was tested outside their county-of-residence. And yet even that rule appears up for interpretation, according to Seals, the Reeves County Hospital spokesperson.
Seals said that health officials in DSHS Region 9/10, which covers much of the Far West Texas region, were determining where cases got tested. But then a new doctor took over the region, and “they are interpreting things differently.”
“There’s already been a change [in protocols] midway through” this pandemic, she said. “It’s not good for anybody.”
DSHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, including on discrepancies in testing numbers or for more clarity on what determines where positive patients are counted. Region 9/10 also did not respond to a request for comment.
Finally, in a short email on Tuesday, a DSHS spokesperson told The Big Bend Sentinel that “cases are assigned to the county where a person resides.” The spokesperson did not provide more information, did not answer any of The Big Bend Sentinel’s other questions and did not respond to a follow-up email by press time.