Testing languishes in tri-county as other regions struggle

“The state resources are very important,” Brewster County emergency management coordinator Stephanie Elmore said. “I would really like to get some more testing out here.”

TRI-COUNTY — The last public testing site in the region was in Alpine on August 28, when the Texas Division of Emergency Management brought four days of back-to-back testing to the tri-county. But despite the fact that case counts have crept up and that schools across the region have now reopened, almost a month later there still haven’t been any new testing sites announced.

At an Alpine City Council meeting last week, a brief exchange between public officials helped explain why. Ekta Escovar, the local health authority for Brewster County, was giving her regular updates on coronavirus in the region before hopping off to join a call with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Before she left, Erik Zimmer, city manager for Alpine, asked Escovar if she could try to get more testing out to the region. Escovar said she’d try but said that state officials were preoccupied elsewhere.

“There are a lot of counties that are struggling a little bit more than we are,” she said. Still, she acknowledged the tri-county was a rural area without “a lot of that [healthcare] infrastructure built-in if mobile testing doesn’t come through.”

Reached for comment this week, TDEM did not respond to requests for comment on what specific criteria, if any, it uses to determine which Texas towns and counties get testing. Escovar likewise didn’t respond to a request for comment — though in her public presentations, she typically uses a number of criteria, from ICU capacity to active case counts, to evaluate how well or poorly the region is doing.

But regardless of how state officials decide who gets state-run testing sites, Escovar’s basic premise is true: While the tri-county’s climbing case counts might be worrying to residents, the region is statistically doing better than elsewhere in the state.

South Texas, one of the worst-hit regions in the United States, is still struggling to contain an outbreak that started this summer and has overwhelmed hospitals in cities like Brownsville and Laredo. Major metropolitan areas are also still struggling, with Houston’s Harris County adding more than 6,000 cases since press time last week.

According to data aggregated by The New York Times, Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties are nowhere near the worst-hit parts of the state. That dubious distinction goes to Edwards County near San Antonio, where cases almost doubled over the weekend, going from 34 to 67. Those numbers might sound small until one realizes Edwards County has less than 2,000 people — meaning that around one in every 50 people there is confirmed to have coronavirus, a rate similar to the outbreak in Alpine in late June and early July.

But one need not travel across the state to find worse-hit areas: nearby Culberson County, where Van Horn sits, is currently the 16th-worst county in Texas in terms of new per-capita cases, according to the data. Given those numbers — and given the fact that local officials consistently describe Texas as overwhelmed by everything from testing to contact tracing — it’s little wonder that no new testing sites have shown up in the area.

TDEM, for its part, has said for months that it is providing as much testing as it can. At the same time, the agency has encouraged local governments to fill in the gaps by setting up their own testing sites.

The agency has been “encouraging jurisdictions across the state to utilize their CARES Act funding to test in their communities,” a TDEM representative told The Big Bend Sentinel earlier this month — and in the Big Bend, there’s signs that could be happening.

In Brewster County, Emergency Management Coordinator Stephanie Elmore has been recruiting volunteers and requesting tests with the goal of setting up county-run testing. And in Marfa, city officials are unveiling a program for local contact tracing — another area where Texas state officials were initially taking charge, but where local officials grew increasingly frustrated with delays, uncontacted patients and other problems.

Both of those initiatives, though, have yet to begin. And while county-run testing might have its benefits — county officials, for example, could have more say over which towns get tested — it’s unclear if the region can handle testing all on its own.

The TDEM-run testing sites often drew hundreds of people — including the last site in Presidio, where officials were able to test around 600 residents in the span of two days. By contrast, fewer than 500 tests have been conducted across the entire tri-county in the last week, according to daily updates posted online by officials in Brewster County — not a bad number, but almost certainly not enough to capture new cases.

Worse, much of that testing has come from institutions that limit who can get tested, including Sul Ross State University (which only tests employees and students) and Big Bend Regional Medical Center (which requires a doctor’s note). That’s a big change from just a month ago, when any resident could get a free coronavirus test regardless of symptoms.

In an interview this week, Brewster County EMC Elmore said she was getting ready to open Brewster County’s first public and locally run testing site, which she plans to first bring to Big Bend National Park before visiting other far-flung communities like Marathon. After weeks of recruiting volunteers and making plans, Elmore said she just needed one more training session through the testing company Curative.

Still, Elmore was blunt that without more state-run testing sites, she and other officials wouldn’t be able to reach as many people in the region. She’d only found ten volunteers, compared to state-run testing sites, which typically have over dozen workers at a single site. And unlike the sites she’s organizing, which would rely on unpaid volunteers with other time commitments, TDEM testing sites have paid workers that can stick around all day

“The state resources are very important,” Elmore added. “I would really like to get some more testing out here.”