Brewster County prepares to run its own testing sites

TRI-COUNTY — Big Bend residents may start seeing some familiar faces at testing sites, as county officials prepare to likely set up and run their own.

So far, the Texas Division of Emergency Management — in coordination with local officials, and working with the National Guard and private contractors — has organized testing sites in the region. But Presidio County officials were struggling to get testing to Presidio city.

Likewise, in Brewster County, officials haven’t had much luck getting testing to far-flung communities like Terlingua and Marathon. In spread out West Texas, TDEM wants to centralize its testing efforts in an effort to reach as many Texans as possible — and in the eyes of state officials, places like Terlingua aren’t central enough.

This approach has proved controversial in Presidio County, where Presidio — despite being the county’s largest city and having signs of a growing outbreak — hadn’t had testing in almost two months. TDEM finally brought two days of back-to-back testing to Presidio last month, after four residents died from coronavirus and The Big Bend Sentinel reported extensively on this issue.

To date, though, Terlingua and Marathon still haven’t seen another state-run testing site, nor have any been announced. And so when TDEM announced its latest testing push in Alpine last month, Elmore decided to press the issue again.

In conversations with officials, Elmore said TDEM was fine with more testing in Terlingua and Marathon — they just weren’t sure they could run them. As TDEM grapples with a statewide health crisis, the agency is encouraging local governments to supplement state resources with its own.

“We have been working to support local officials’ requests for testing,” a TDEM spokesperson said in statement to The Big Bend Sentinel this week. “But [we] have been encouraging jurisdictions across the state to utilize their CARES act funding to test in their communities as well.” And in Elmore’s case, that meant she’ll be largely responsible for organizing any additional testing sites.

In addition to CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding, Elmore says officials recommended she make a “State of Texas Assistance Request” (STAR), a TDEM grant program that provides personal protective equipment and other supplies to local governments. And the process, Elmore soon learned, was surprisingly simple.

“I have a form I fill out,” she explained. It asked basic questions like how many tests she needed and what they’d be used for. Then, TDEM takes care of supplies. “All the testing comes through TDEM,” she said.

The harder part has been finding volunteers. Elmore turned to the county’s “COVID team,” a group that brings together entities like the City of Alpine, Alpine ISD and Sul Ross State University for biweekly planning meetings. “I just emailed them to see if anyone could come and volunteer,” she said.

Elmore quickly found a group of 10 volunteers. When the National Guard came through for testing, she had the volunteers shadow them, to get a sense of the process. They learned how to register new patients, safely hand out test kits and make sure the stickers in the test kits matched with those in the system.

“I just started off small before we get anyone else involved,” she said. “That way, we can see how it goes.”

Between trained volunteers and STAR requests, Elmore says Brewster County should soon have its own functional testing team. She hopes to have the first county-run testing initiative next week, with a site in Big Bend National Park.

The program, she says, could be a game-changer for residents. “I think it’ll be very good, because we’ll be able to test wherever we want,” she said. At the same time, she acknowledges there are drawbacks to relying on volunteers for testing: “It depends on whether it fits with people’s schedules.”

In Presidio County, Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke would also like to see more locally run testing resources. That way, he says, county officials could not only get more testing to Presidio city but also for specific frontline groups, from Presidio EMS and school workers to employees at Village Farms, which saw a spike in cases at its tomato-growing facilities last month.

Mitschke has previously expressed concerns about relying on volunteers for testing sites. “It’s just difficult to try to get that done,” he told The Big Bend Sentinel last month. “God bless people who volunteer — but they’re not always available.”

Still, like Elmore, Mitschke says local officials in Presidio County may soon need to take a larger role in running its testing. “Last time I talked to the state, they basically said they just weren’t sure how long they were going to have the testing teams,” he said. And certainly if testing teams stopped coming to the region, “it could come to this,” he said.

Mitschke has previously considered running testing through Presidio County. His first plan was to provide tests on a “case-by-case basis” to people who urgently needed them. One example: a teacher who thinks they may have been exposed and needs to get tested before returning to work.

But as directives from TDEM and the situation on the ground continue to change, “I think we need to stay flexible with it,” he said. “We need to have contingency plans.”

Ultimately, that could mean Presidio County sets up its own testing team, just like Elmore has done in Brewster County. But first, the county would need “a group of people we can depend on whenever we need them.”