State fumbles coronavirus data as cases surge in Marfa

"I checked [state data] and they’re not updating the numbers," Presidio County Health Authority Dr. John Paul "J.P." Schwartz said on Tuesday. "This is really getting bad.”

TRI-COUNTY — On Friday afternoon, Marfa Independent School District announced there were three coronavirus cases linked to Marfa schools. Within an hour, that number was six. By Monday, it was 10.

After weeks without public testing sites, those weren’t the only new cases discovered in the tri-county last week. In news releases over the weekend, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara announced several of the school cases, plus at least two more: a woman in her 30s in Marfa and a woman in her 80s in Presidio.

Also on Friday, Alpine ISD announced that someone with coronavirus had been on Alpine High School campus and that students may have been exposed. It’s at least the third such notice since Alpine public schools reopened in August.

Separately, Summer Webb, the mayor of Valentine, announced the town’s first case of coronavirus. That case came from testing at a clinic and not a testing site, said Larry Francell, the interim county judge for Jeff Davis County.

From last week until Monday, officials found at least 14 new coronavirus cases in the tri-county, including around a dozen in Marfa alone. But residents wouldn’t have known by looking at the state’s official coronavirus tracker, which didn’t update Presidio County’s total case numbers from last Thursday until Tuesday evening this week.

Last Thursday, the Texas Department of State Health Services added one case, bringing its case count for Presidio County to 98. Over the weekend, Presidio County officials said there were 118 cases. Meanwhile, state data on Monday still said there were just two active cases in Presidio County — an incorrect number that contradicted what county officials were saying.

The state also reported there was only one new death from coronavirus across the entire state, but Texas news sources reported multiple deaths that day, including at least four in Dallas County alone. Texas now has the second-highest number of coronavirus deaths, behind only New York.

In an email to The Big Bend Sentinel on Monday, a DSHS spokesperson said Region 9/10, which covers 36 counties in Far West Texas, had “scaled back” its data processing on weekends and was now doing “most of the data processing on Mondays.” They were doing so, the spokesperson said, to “preserve their staff for the long duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But Monday came and went, and no new cases were added to the state tracker for Presidio County. The state also added no new cases to Brewster, Crane, Culberson, El Paso, Ector, Jeff Davis, Hudspeth, Pecos, Reeves or Terrell counties.

Of the counties in the region, only Midland County saw an update. El Paso officials were reporting more than 400 new cases per day, even reaching their highest single-day total of 523 new cases last Thursday.

The lack of clear data left officials unsure of how their communities were doing or how to respond.  John Ferguson, the mayor of Presidio, said the lack of official state information was making it hard to know whether there was another outbreak in Presidio. While he’d heard of at least two local cases by early afternoon Tuesday, officials were at that point only reporting one.

Previous testing sites in Presidio have led to new cases being announced, Ferguson noted. So the lack of information this time “really has me scratching my head.”

“Are we doing that much better?,” he asked. “Or are the results just not being released to people who need to have that info?” The lack of clarity on those questions was “a little bit scary.”

Erik Zimmer, the city manager of Alpine, was also frustrated at health officials for not providing timely information to Alpine. “At the regional level, they should be shooting this [data] out,” he said. “We’re nine months into this. It’s very important to the communities they serve.”

From looking at data across the country, Zimmer said he noticed that the “last state to report [new numbers] every day is Texas.” That is, when Texas updates its numbers at all.

“You can routinely go in [the state’s coronavirus tracker] at 4:30 or 5 and Texas hasn’t reported a damn thing,” he added. “Every other state in the U.S. has. We have a systemic data issue at DSHS. I’m surprised that [Governor Greg] Abbott hasn’t gotten front and center on that. I would have expected that from him.”

Finally, late on Tuesday, DSHS updated its tri-county numbers. At press time, it was reporting 118 cases in Presidio County, plus 17 in Jeff Davis County and 233 in Brewster County. The data was already days old, and it didn’t include the four new school cases that Marfa ISD says it discovered on Monday.

In a news release, Judge Guevara said she heard about the coronavirus cases at Marfa schools last week from Oscar Aguero, the superintendent at Marfa ISD. Aguero said he learned about them from infected staff or families, who reached out individually to let him know.

Of the 10 cases so far linked to Marfa public schools, Aguero only heard about one of those through official channels. That was when test results and contact-tracers informed him that his son, Marfa High School senior John, had tested positive.

On Saturday, in a post on social media, Aguero said his family was going into quarantine.

“Please know that our family has been doing everything that we can for this not to have happened,” he wrote. But “even with all this, Covid-19 has entered our house.”

Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the health authority for Presidio County, was unhappy about the lack of clear information from the state on new local cases. “I’m not getting much,” he said on Tuesday. “I checked [state data] and they’re not updating the numbers. This is really getting bad.”

“We’ve been in communication with the state,” he added, “but what they told us is, they’re not being contracted on the weekends to keep [numbers] updated. We’re considering, at this point, having people calling in their own reports— which is just crazy.”

Issues with state data are nothing new, nor are discrepancies between DSHS and local numbers. In the past, the issues often came down to residency. A person might live in Van Horn but get tested in Marfa, or they might go to Sul Ross State University but have a permanent address with their family in Fort Stockton. They might be a prisoner or immigration detainee. With hundreds of thousands of coronavirus cases across the state, it took time to sort through these scenarios. But all of those delays aside, the switch to mostly processing data on Monday is new, at least for Region 9/10.

 

The region just had its first public testing push in weeks, and limited information so far suggests a growing local outbreak. But with no official numbers to show for it yet, Marfa was packed with visitors this weekend, with at least one wedding and a concert taking place.

Those events added to the concern in Marfa, as some residents expressed concerns that the town was still seeing events despite the rise in cases. “Our town is full of tourists at a time when new cases in Texas are peaking,” one resident wrote on social media. “If there has ever been a time to close shop, stay home and wear a mask – this is it.”

“Thank you sir,” Councilmember Raul Lara responded. “Your concern is valid and is very appreciated.”

Still, there wasn’t much city council could do. Governor Abbott’s orders offer exemptions to public gathering rules for weddings. Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said he was happy with how the wedding venue handled the event.

“They followed really strict guidelines,” he said. “They had their T’s crossed and their I’s dotted. It was pretty impressive.”

As for the music show, it’s less clear what the story is. Event organizers did not contact the city to let them know about the event, city officials said. Reached for comment this week, some officials didn’t even know about it.

Manny Baeza, the mayor of Marfa, said he learned about the event on social media. He said Marfa police checked on it periodically and found no specific evidence that — at any given point — capacity exceeded the maximum cap of 10 people.

Like others in the region, Baeza expressed concern about the delays in data coming from the state.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I just wish the reporting process was more fluid — that it didn’t take so long to get information back to our citizens.”


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