After rejected tests and delayed results, officials praise the latest mobile testing contractor

TRI-COUNTY — The Big Bend region tried out another testing site set-up last week, as National Guard officials returned — but this time, with oral swabs from a California company called Curative.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management, which organizes testing sites throughout the state, has been contracting with third parties in hopes of improving the testing process, as The Big Bend Sentinel has previously reported. And on the ground, that’s meant that testing resources in Marfa have continued to change.

First, there were just National Guard testing sites. Then, a Washington State-based company called Honu Management Group took the reins. And then there was a third iteration last week, as National Guard workers returned but this time using a new form of test. (They’ll be back again in Marfa and Alpine next week, local officials noted on Tuesday.)

So far, officials liked last week’s testing push the most. Gary Mitschke, the emergency management coordinator for Presidio County, and Stephanie Elmore, the emergency management coordinator for Brewster County, both agreed the process went smoothly. Practically all residents had results within 48 hours, they said.

Mitschke liked Curative products so much, in fact, that he hopes to buy some for the county to use on a “case-by-case basis.” For example: If first-responders learned they had positive contacts, as happened with several Marfa firefighters in June.

But those tests would be for limited purposes, Mitschke said. He acknowledged that the region still relied heavily on the state for public testing pushes.

Pondering the costs of a single public Marfa testing site, he said: “I don’t even have that in my emergency management budget for the whole year.” (With Curative tests retailing at around $150, according to Mitschke, it could have cost more than $45,000 to test the 311 people who got tested in Marfa last week.)

Asked why Curative was returning results so quickly, a spokesperson for the company said in an email that Curative “manages the entire process end-to-end.”

The company is currently processing up to 60,000 tests per day and could do even more if necessary, she said. She contrasted that with other companies, which she said were “hitting their ceilings for testing capacities.”

Meanwhile, the company says clinical trials have pegged its accuracy at around 89.7% — an average better than nasal swabs, which have an estimated accuracy in the range of 70%. The Curative spokesperson also cited an April study from Yale University, which found that oral swabs have “less variability” than nasal ones. And that’s on top of the obvious public relations benefits of oral tests, which don’t involve sticking tests uncomfortably far up people’s noses.

Still, no matter how much local officials like Curative, they may not have the ability to specifically choose the company. While emergency management coordinators like Mitschke have the ability to request testing sites, the logistics fall to TDEM.

Seth Christensen, a spokesperson for the agency, said TDEM relies on a variety of private-sector vendors as well as the National Guard and uses “what is available when requested.”

“This is what we’re doing all over the state,” he said. “It isn’t unique to just the [Big Bend] area.”

But compare Curative’s results to those of previous testing pushes in Marfa, including those involving other third-party companies: When Honu Management Group took over the region’s previous testing push in July, it didn’t exactly earn the same praise from public officials.

A Honu testing site in El Paso saw logistical delays, and another Honu testing site in Alpine was canceled altogether. Meanwhile, some residents found themselves waiting over a week for results — including Mitschke himself.

The company has found itself in hot water for other reasons, too. Earlier this month, The Dallas Morning News reported that Dallas city and county officials had “missed red flags” when they signed a contract with Honu.

The company was touting claims that couldn’t be backed up — including the claim that it had a “stamp of White House approval,” the paper reported. It had also run into other challenges, including contaminated testing supplies that contributed to false positives at a Dallas nursing home in June.

The Dallas Morning News aren’t the only ones criticizing Honu. This week, Brewster County officials complained the company saw a “very high rate” of rejected samples in its Alpine testing initiative, at 18%.

That rate was “unacceptable,” Brewster County officials said. They added that they’d contacted state health officials “regarding this matter, as county officials feel this needs to be significantly improved for future testing sites/dates.”

In a lengthy statement, Devin Thornton, the CEO of Honu, said the company had provided more than 60,000 tests at 74 locations across the state. Of those, the average turnaround time was 3.54 days, he said.

He said the company was committed to “ensuring accurate testing results are received” but had been able to set up testing sites “in under 36 hours” in some cases. And he cited Honu’s other benefits to Texas communities, from providing free and FDA-approved face masks to working with minority- and veteran-owned businesses and employing more than 800 people throughout the state. “Community members that may be displaced or out of work,” the company added, were invited to email [email protected] for more information on employment opportunities.

Christensen, the TDEM spokesperson, acknowledged the company initially had issues with result turnaround times. But he said the company found an “IT issue” was to blame and had “updated their system to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Overall, Christensen was less critical of Honu’s efforts and efficacy. He couldn’t speak for the rejection rate in Brewster County, noting that he hadn’t seen that data. But “on the statewide level,” he added, Honu’s “rejection rate isn’t standing out” compared to other testing providers.

In a follow-up statement, TDEM stressed it had a lengthy review process for potential vendors before issuing a purchase order, from checking tax and other records to ensuring companies weren’t “doing business with Iran, Sudan, or a foreign terrorist organization.”

And critically, the agency said all of these checks — as well as a receipt of its final product — are “completed before a vendor is paid.”

“If they don’t perform,” Christensen clarified of vendors in general, “We can relieve them of their service at any time.”