As new company prepares testing push in tri-county, local officials assess last effort

TRI-COUNTY — There’s a new coronavirus-testing company in town, and it isn’t Honu Management Group. Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel reported that the Washington State-based company was taking over testing sites from the National Guard after scoring a contract from the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

The developments came as Texas moves to privatize core aspects of its coronavirus response. A company called MTX Group in May won a $295 million contract to help with Texas contact tracing, while companies like Honu are coordinating everything from collection sites to the tests themselves.

Earlier this month, Honu organized three days of testing in the tri-county, including two in Marfa and one in Alpine. A fourth day of testing in Alpine had also been scheduled, but it was canceled because workers “weren’t prepared,” Stephanie Elmore, the emergency management coordinator for Brewster County, previously told The Big Bend Sentinel.

But when local officials this week announced the latest testing sites — including one next Monday, August 3 in Marfa, and Tuesday, August 4 in Alpine —Honu wasn’t part of that push. Instead, military testing teams would be back, and they’d be using oral swabs provided by the company Curative, Seth Christensen, a TDEM spokesperson, confirmed in an email.

Devin Thornton, the CEO of Honu, said the company was “working with the state of Texas to expand more sites.” Christensen, the TDEM person, said in a follow-up interview there was a “possibility Honu can be back [in the Big Bend] at some point” but stressed that Texas worked with a variety of “private-sector vendors.”

“Remember, they’ve been doing this for the state since April,” he added of the National Guard-run military testing sites, describing the guard as “great partners” who “work efficiently.” TDEM encourages Texans to visit for more information on testing sites near them.

The results from Honu’s July testing push in West Texas were mixed but leaned towards positive. Aside from the canceled testing site in Alpine, the company also had “a hiccup” in El Paso earlier this month when it first started running a testing site in the city, Laura Cruz-Acosta, city spokesperson for El Paso, previously told The Big Bend Sentinel.

In an email last week, Thornton, the CEO of Honu, said that as El Paso became a state hotspot, an “unexpected increase in testing needs” contributed to delays there. He also cited issues with “traffic flow, safety and equipment set-up.”

On one hand, local officials praised Honu for its quick and efficient test collections. When this reporter visited a Honu site in Marfa, the entire process was over in just 15 minutes.

On the other hand, officials and residents say Honu so far hasn’t met its goal of consistently getting lab results within 72 or 96 hours. While some residents got their results within a day or two, others — including Presidio County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke — are still waiting. It’s an issue The Big Bend Sentinel has previously reported on multiple times, and it was a problem long before Honu got involved.

Last week, Elmore praised the company for getting results to some residents by last Monday after running a testing site in Alpine just two days earlier. A TDEM coordinator came to check out the site that Saturday but ended up leaving because the operation was running so smoothly, she said.

In a follow-up call this week, Elmore said “almost all” of the around 150 residents tested in Alpine had received results. She couldn’t immediately provide exact figures on how many Honu tests were still pending.

On social media, updates from Brewster County show that more than 400 of the roughly 3,200 tests in the tri-county are still pending. But those are figures for the whole Big Bend region and include tests run before Honu came aboard.

Mitschke, the emergency management coordinator for Presidio County, was pleased with “the actual gathering of tests,” also describing it as smooth. But when it came to getting results to residents, Mitschke was less effusive than Elmore.

Like Elmore, Mitschke wasn’t exactly sure what proportion of Presidio County residents had received results from the last testing site in Marfa. But he knew that some people were still waiting for results, including himself.

Another resident who’s still waiting: Marfa-based photographer Nina Dietzel. Like Mitschke, she was happy with how the process of actually getting tested went.

“They were super nice at the drive-thru,” she said. The whole process was quick — and even better, it only involved one uncomfortable nasal swab rather than two. “I don’t know if it could have gone better,” she added.

But after more than a week, Dietzel was still awaiting results. She’d driven to visit friends in California after getting tested, and — while she just got tested as a precaution and didn’t have any symptoms — she was frustrated that she couldn’t reassure friends there she was negative. “Anytime we can condense the testing and results, I think that’s a really good thing,” she said. “If you don’t get a result, it’s kind of nil.”

“Even if it’s three days or four days [to get results], it really doesn’t really work in terms of containing the virus or tracing,” she added. And in Texas at least, “there’s pretty much no tracing, anyways.”

On Friday, Dietzel called a state hotline to check on her results. But workers couldn’t find any information with her phone number in the system, she said. And when she tried to supply her email instead, a worker told her: “We don’t have this information here.”

Dietzel grew up in Bavaria state in Germany and is planning to travel back soon to visit her family. She contrasted that country, which like much of the industrialized world seemed to be getting a handle on the virus, with the situation in the United States and particularly Texas, where patchwork response efforts and partisan brawls have done little to slow the spread.

She wasn’t sure how long on average it took for German tests to yield results — but she did know officials in the country were testing many international travelers as they arrived. “It seems like they’re really ahead,” she said.

In his email, Thornton, the Honu CEO, said Honu was processing its own tests through labs it runs “throughout the country.” Noting that some labs were taking up to 16 days to process results, he thought Honu was handling testing relatively well. He cited other aspects he thought Honu was doing well, including “providing great service while being cost effective” and an ability to “get sites up quickly based on immediate need.”

Still, he acknowledged that Honu had room to grow in other areas, including ensuring that “patients receive better resources to ensure they receive their results.” And he said the company needed more workers and was “constantly looking to hire.”

“This is a focus to ensure we can reduce wait times and also help expedite services,” he said, adding that Honu was “always looking to hire personnel from within the community that want to help be a solution during a time like this.”

Mitschke said that while Honu came prepared to do around 300 tests each day in Marfa, “we really fell short of that.” Over the course of two days, only around 180 people showed up to get tested.

If Marfans want to see more testing, “the numbers need to justify going out to these places and getting these tests done,” he added. “That’s the reason I was a little disappointed last time.”

For residents who have gotten tested for coronavirus but not yet received results, local officials recommend they call the state’s help line at 1-833-213-0643 or email [email protected]