Coronavirus gains speed in Texas

A chart of confirmed coronavirus cases by-date for both Presidio and Brewster counties. Graphic by Stephen Paulsen and Abbie Perrault.

TEXAS — Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel reported on looming coronavirus outbreaks in Marfa and Alpine — some of the first signs that coronavirus was gaining a foothold in the region. And over the past week, the situation has continued to gain speed in the Big Bend and across the state, with some experts now describing Texas (along with Florida and Arizona) as the new worst-hit parts of the United States.

Locally, the case-count in Brewster County has almost tripled in the past week, going from 21 last Wednesday to 61 at press time this week. Presidio has fared slightly better, with total cases rising from 10 to 14.

The graph above shows the total number of cases in Presidio and Brewster counties from the start of the month through Tuesday, June 23, the most recent state data available. At the start of this graph on June 1, Brewster and Presidio counties each had one confirmed case of coronavirus.

Brewster County officials on April 30 announced they’d found a case in South County, marking the first coronavirus case in the tri-county region. Around a month later, on May 23, officials in Presidio County said they’d found their first case: a woman in her 40s in Presidio city who was believed to have gotten the disease through travel. Both patients are now considered recovered.

As The Big Bend Sentinel has previously reported, there have at times been discrepancies between state and county data on both the total number of cases and the dates cases were confirmed. For this graph, The Big Bend Sentinel is using data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The situation locally mirrors that of the state. On Tuesday, Texas reported by far its highest number of daily new cases, at 5,489. That’s over 1,000 higher than the previous daily high of 4,430 cases last Saturday.

Hospitalizations have also started to climb. More than 300 people were hospitalized between Monday and Tuesday. And while Governor Greg Abbott has continued to describe hospital capacity as “abundant,” the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston this week started preparing to accept adult coronavirus patients. More than 4,000 Texans have been hospitalized at press time, and more than 2,200 Texans have died.

Locally, a spokesperson for the Big Bend Regional Medical Center said Wednesday that “there have been no hospitalizations for COVID-19” at BBRMC. However, she declined to comment on how many people had been transported to urgent care in places like El Paso and Midland/Odessa, citing patient-privacy rules.

At an Alpine City Council meeting on Tuesday evening, Erik Zimmer, city manager, said that “several” residents had been “transported to higher care.” But Zimmer, who did not respond to a request for comment by press time, did not offer more details at the meeting.

As the situation worsens, Governor Abbott has faced increasing scrutiny for his handling of the crisis. Not only did he impose some of the shortest lockdown orders in the country, he also prevented local officials from taking additional precautions, overturning — for example — the short-term rentals ban in Marfa.

Abbott has also prevented cities and counties from requiring masks. But in a reversal of previous rulings, Abbott is now allowing cities and counties to require that businesses require customers wear masks. And many cities and counties are now taking advantage of that loophole, including big cities like Houston and smaller towns like Marfa, which enacted its own version of such requirements last week.

At the state level, though, Abbott has continued to tout his “reopening” of the state. When case-counts started to surge this month, Abbott blamed the trends on young people “going to bars,” actions allowed under Abbott’s own orders.

This week, Abbott acknowledged that coronavirus was spreading in Texas at an “unacceptable rate” and “must be corralled.” But he continued to promote personal responsibility, rather than a state response, as the proper course.

At a news conference this week, Abbott encouraged Texans to “step up and work collaboratively to make sure we respond to this increase.” But he also said Texas has “strategies” to reduce the spread of coronavirus “without having to return to stay-at-home policies.” For the second week in a row, he made no specific policy changes.

As coronavirus picks up speed in the tri-county, thankfully so has testing. As of Wednesday, around 1,700 people in the tri-county had received coronavirus tests. Many were tested during a two-and-a-half day testing push at Sul Ross State University last week, which managed to test more than 750 people.

One common talking point about coronavirus, used this week by President Donald Trump, is that rising confirmed case-counts are simply a result of higher testing. While it’s certainly true that testing finds new cases, that isn’t the whole story.

Texas’s positivity rate — the percentage of those tested who are later confirmed to have the virus — has risen at a more-or-less steady pace since as early as June 13. Hospitalizations, another metric that is not impacted by whether testing is widespread, have grown across the state, revealing that it’s viral spread, not increased testing, that is driving up COVID cases in Texas. Abbott himself has acknowledged as much, noting that the average positivity rate has doubled since late May, and that in general, the metrics being watched have grown greatly over the past month.

Abbott told the press on Monday that if numbers continued to double, it would mean “we are in a more urgent situation” where “tougher actions” would be required.