Officials struggle as testing results take weeks to come back: ‘Our hands are tied’

WEST TEXAS — “It took 15 days,” Mike Pallanez told his fellow Brewster County commissioners about his experience getting his coronavirus test results back. And he isn’t alone. The Big Bend Sentinel spoke with a handful of West Texas residents who waited weeks to hear back, while others simply never heard anything at all.

Pallanez said he only got his results back because he enlisted the help of a local nurse practitioner who was able to find them for him, more than two weeks after being tested. At that point, a patient who had been exposed to or exhibited symptoms of coronavirus is likely to have exited their window of contagion. Pallanez was lucky, he was negative. But because he had taken precautions due to not knowing his test status, he spent two weeks quarantining when it wasn’t necessary.

Lari Quigg, another Alpine resident, got swabbed at the June 23 local testing site. And like Pallanez, Quigg said she never received notification of her test results from the state. On a tri-county pandemic-focused Facebook group, Quigg found others who were in the same boat. Her post about not getting results caught the attention of a local doctor who went through state data to find Quigg’s results – and ultimately deliver the bad news that she was positive, a week after her test date.

“I know several other people that are experiencing the same problem, that haven’t gotten their results back and it’s been 12, 15, 16 days since testing,” Pallanez told Brewster County commissioners.

At the commissioners meeting, county health authority and local doctor Ekta Escovar told commissioners that there have been a large number of people who have gotten positive test results back and “they’re surprised because they don’t have symptoms, they don’t feel sick,” calling it a “toss up” on whether someone is going to be positive or negative at this point.

Since results were coming back sporadically, Escovar advised, “Until we get test results back, we really want to minimize the amount of contact we have with other people so that when you do get positive test results back and you’re calling everybody you’ve been in close contact with, that number is zero or just your household.”

After getting tested, Quigg had taken precautions and stayed home because she was exhibiting symptoms. At the time, there were over 630 tests pending in Alpine. “How many never received a call and are walking around, maybe asymptomatic, going around town spreading it? That needs to stop. We need federal help, especially in the states where it’s growing exponentially,” said Quigg.

Labs have been overwhelmed due to increased testing in Texas, which has logged over 50,000 tests per day this week. But those numbers put Texas among the bottom 11 states in testing per 1000 residents. The tri-county performs slightly better than the state though, administering 131 tests per thousand residents.

“I can’t put the blame on the lab,” Quigg said. “Can you imagine having to do that many tests in a day? Surely there’s no way to humanly undertake those numbers. We need more testing, but we need more people in place to do the testing. Either the state needs to step up or the federal government does,” she said.

Testing will arrive once again in Alpine on July 17 and 18 and in Marfa on July 19 and 20, with no sites requiring appointments this time. While the Texas National Guard has so far administered the testing at mobile sites in the tri-county, these upcoming dates will mark the transition to a privately contracted company running the sites.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management told local officials that residents don’t need to bother with pre-registering, and that tests will now be administered on a first come, first served basis.

“A new team being out here, it’s going to be a learning curve I suppose,” said Presidio County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke. The changeover comes on the tails of the July 6 Marathon testing date, where individuals who arrived were turned away and told it was by appointment only. Brewster County EMC Stephanie Elmore was surprised to learn about that change on the day of testing. They also switched to mouth swabs, though both EMCs say nasal swabs will return to future testing sites.

While Mischke and Elmore were both aware of the upcoming change to private company-run testing, neither were able to determine which company that actually is, and TDEM did not return requests for comment.

Curative Inc., the company that has taken over appointment scheduling after the state shut down its own phone line and website, confirmed it is taking appointments (which local EMCs claim are not needed.)

A statement from the company said, “Once patients receive the scheduling link, they will choose their preferred location and book their appointment. All further communication regarding their COVID-19 test, including results, will then be sent via text or email address.”

“Curative is running the software of the sites but not the physical infrastructure,” a representative for the company said.

Mistchke said under the new contractor-run testing sites, residents will still be notified of their results in the same manner as before, saying, “Positives will be notified by the local health authority or DSHS.” And for those who do not get their results, he suggested emailing for assistance.

At the commissioners court meeting, Escovar said, “I don’t really know how to fix the things that are not in our hands.” The doctor has gone as far as to offer her own time to personally make phone calls notifying patients when they’ve tested positive, in hopes of speeding up how soon they hear about it.

But the state has been reluctant, saying, “‘We don’t know if we can necessarily do that or get that information to you in a timely fashion.’ I feel like our hands are tied. We’re offering what we can offer and I just don’t know what else to do.

“There seems to be a lot of bureaucracy involved, and they’re not sure they can even get us an end-of-day list of folks that tested positive so that we can at least notify people quickly,” Escovar said.

Commissioner Betse Esparza made passionate calls for the state to provide rapid testing to the area. “All of us, not just commissioners court, need to start demanding rapid testing and opening up some labs and doing what they need to do so that everyone who gets tested gets a test back that day, or the next day,” Esparza said. In other parts of the state, rapid testing can return results within hours, and she felt that “out in West Texas, we just sort of get forgotten sometimes.”

“Most people cannot go take a test and then stay home for two weeks and wait,” Esparza said. “They have a job they have to go to. That is such a hard thing to expect from people.”

Whether or not the state is ready and able to provide speedy results to patients, EMC Elmore is optimistic about the changeover from National Guard to a private company. Under the National Guard “it was a little bit harder because we had to get in line for testing,” and sometimes that line was a long wait, meaning the area would go weeks without any mobile sites available. TDEM is working with Elmore and other EMCs to try and put the area on “an every other week schedule,” offering more consistent testing for area residents.

The upcoming testing in Alpine is Friday, July 17 and Saturday, July 18 at North Brewster County Emergency Response Center at 102 S. 2nd Street, and no appointment is required.

Testing in Marfa is Sunday, July 19 and Monday, July 20 at the Marfa Visitor Center at 302 South Highland Avenue, with no appointment required.