August 12, 2020 558 PM
PRESIDIO — Earlier this year, as coronavirus cases started climbing throughout the tri-county, Presidio seemed a holdout. Although the border city recorded Presidio County’s first coronavirus case all the way back in May, when Marfa and Alpine saw major outbreaks in June, Presidio County’s largest city was mostly spared.
In recent weeks, though, those trends have been reversing — with Presidio now almost tied with Marfa for the total number of coronavirus cases. At press time, there were 24 known coronavirus cases in Marfa compared to 23 in Presidio, according to the latest data available from the county.
That might not seem so bad — Presidio, after all, has more than twice as many residents as Marfa. But Presidio has also had far less testing — and other statistics paint a more troubling picture.
Since mid-July, a majority of the new coronavirus cases have turned up in Presidio, with 10 cases surfacing in Marfa versus 19 in Presidio. And with a vulnerable population that’s more at risk of coronavirus complications, all three of the county’s coronavirus deaths so far have been Presidio residents.
Those facts are catching the attention of Presidio city officials — some of whom are wondering why, as Presidio’s situation worsens, the city isn’t seeing more help from the state.
“Almost all the testing sites have been in Marfa,” Mayor John Ferguson said. “I’m not sure why we haven’t had another round out here.” With cases climbing in the border city, he thought residents would certainly be interested in further testing.
Presidio city’s last public testing site was on June 30, almost a month and a half ago. Since then, Marfa has had two additional mobile testing dates — and officials on Tuesday announced another round of Marfa testing next week.
Presidio’s situation mirrors the broader picture across Texas, where testing has fallen dramatically in recent days. This week — for the first time since mid-June — the rolling average of new tests each day fell below 30,000. And meanwhile, Texas has one of the highest R-naughts in the country — the figure that measures how quickly coronavirus is spreading.
Then, there’s contact tracing. As Texas struggles to keep tabs on new cases, Marfa city officials are in talks with the Texas Department of State Health Services to set up local and city-run contact tracing in what could be a pilot program for small Texas cities.
Presidio, on the other hand, is still relying on state contact tracers. As the county looks to get more involved in Marfa’s contact tracing program, it’s raising a difficult question: Will county residents outside of Marfa see benefits from the program too?
Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said she’d ultimately like to see Marfa’s local contact-tracing efforts extended to Presidio, and Mayor Ferguson said his city would also likely benefit from more contact tracing efforts, including local ones. But Marfa city officials have so far seen the issue differently, noting that its contact tracing program would be city-run and arguing that tracing efforts work best when they’re hyperlocal.
On testing, Gary Mitschke, the emergency management coordinator for Presidio County, previously told The Big Bend Sentinel that he wanted to see more testing in Presidio. But the city so far hasn’t had great turnout at its testing sites, which he thinks has made state officials wary to do another one.
Meanwhile, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which organizes public testing sites, is increasingly trying to “centralize and consolidate” its sites, he said. With limited supplies, doing so would help — for example — Marfa and Fort Davis residents get tested with just one testing site rather than two. But it’s unclear if Presidio is central enough for state officials to bring another testing site through town.
Asked if TDEM was adopting this approach, Seth Christensen, a spokesperson for the agency, said TDEM is “continuing to work with local officials to meet any testing need we might have” but stressed that “emergency management in Texas is locally driven.” He also urged Texans to get a test if they’ve had any coronavirus symptoms or contacts with coronavirus-positive people.
Local officials would have more information on upcoming testing sites, he said. He also urged residents to check online at covidtest.tdem.texas.gov for more information.
Malynda Richardson, the EMS director for Presidio city, thinks she knows why more Presidio residents aren’t getting tested.
“The notifications [on testing sites] are last-minute,” she said. “The state all of a sudden says, ‘We’re going to do it on this date.’ It really throws off our ability to let people know what’s going on.”
Richardson said it’s a shame, because Presidio could use more testing. “Presidio has a bigger population than Marfa,” she said. “Presidio has people that are moving back and forth across the border more frequently — and we have a population that’s very at risk.”
Still, the shortage of testing is hardly Richardson’s only concern. She’s also worried about the backlogs of state data — noting, for example, that Presidio EMS has transported COVID-19 patients to the hospital who didn’t match any of the patient descriptions given to counties and local EMS by the state.
Ultimately, she’d like to see more resources from the state on everything from better data to more testing and contact tracing — though she acknowledges that contact tracing is particularly tricky in the border city. “Families have people that live on both sides,” she said. “You can’t just limit your contact tracing to Presidio.”
Joe Portillo, the city administrator for Presidio, is taking a stoic approach towards these issues. On one hand, he acknowledges that he’d love to see more resources in Presidio, not just on coronavirus, but in terms of better medical services and job opportunities in general. But right now, he said, TDEM was likely just overwhelmed.
Portillo thought Americans were viewing the actions of officials like those at TDEM cynically, but “I don’t think anybody has any ill intent,” he said. Instead, he thought everyone — up to and including state and federal health officials — were just trying to do their best during a pandemic.
On testing, Portillo stressed that Presidio residents have other options, including getting tested at Preventative Care Health Services. (A spokesperson for the company did not respond to requests for comment by press time on how many Presidio residents it’s tested or whether testing is always free.) And as for contact tracing, Portillo thinks such a program could help Presidio but isn’t sure the city could do it on its own.
“It’s already tough in big cities,” he said. “And in small towns, do they have resources for it? No.”