Tri-county sees big turnout for testing

TRI-COUNTY —  Last week, the tri-county region saw its first public testing sites in over a month, with stops in Marfa, Presidio, Alpine and Fort Davis. And judging by the turnout, many residents were eager for the opportunity to find out if they have coronavirus.

In Presidio County, a whopping 546 people were tested, according to Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara. Of those, 347 people tested in Marfa and 199 in Presidio.

Turnout was also good elsewhere in the region, including in Alpine, where 290 people were tested, according to Brewster County Emergency Management Coordinator Stephanie Elmore. Meanwhile, in Fort Davis, 157 people came to get tested, interim County Judge Larry Francell said.

At these sites, unlike previous ones, residents were tested on foot rather than from the comfort of their car. Local officials said walk-up testing made the process more efficient, with average wait times in Marfa at just around 15 minutes. But it also had the drawback of spooking some residents, stopping some people who planned to get tested from doing so.

Those concerns might just be optics, with officials in the region stressing that testing was above-board and didn’t present new risks to residents. Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, said he found the new procedures “reasonable” and that he “didn’t feel like he was any more vulnerable.”

Elmore said workers “did a really good job of making sure everybody was social distancing.” She thought the site in Alpine had gone “really well.” Francell likewise stressed that testing employees were wearing masks and practicing other best practices. He trusted them, he said.

“They’ve been deployed for months doing this,” Francell said. “In my mind, it was actually more efficient.”

Reached for comment about the switch-up, a spokesperson for TDEM said test workers had been trained in “multiple formats” and could safely provide testing with both walk-up test sites and drive-through ones.

“The specific testing team made the decision to provide walk-up testing,” the spokesperson said. Going forward, he said, tri-county residents could expect to see testing in either format.

Those testing sites found a slew of new cases in the tri-county last week, including at least 10 cases at Marfa public schools. But the state has been slow to report those new cases — especially in Presidio, where on Tuesday it was still not apparently reporting all the cases found at Marfa public schools. In an email to The Big Bend Sentinel this week, DSHS said that Region 9/10, which covers Marfa, was now doing “most of the data processing on Mondays.”

Of the more than 990 tests taken in the tri-county last week, it’s still unclear how many are pending and what results have been reported. Previously, Brewster County posted daily updates on social media, including information about pending tests for the whole tri-county region. But the most populous county in the tri-county, and the only one with a hospital and university, hasn’t had a local health authority, or reports on outstanding tests, in weeks.