Ahead of Thanksgiving, officials offer advice as COVID hits an all time high

Some lesser-known tips to prevent coronavirus spread

TRI-COUNTY — By now, many residents know the basic precautions they can take to minimize the risk of coronavirus. Those basic tips — which Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara regularly reiterates in news releases — include wearing a mask, washing hands regularly and keeping at least six feet of distance from other people.

But researchers continue to learn more about coronavirus — and with family-oriented holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, officials in the region are promoting additional precautions they say could help keep residents from getting sick. Here’s some of the advice that local residents may not be aware of, but that local officials and health workers have recently been trying to emphasize.

Small gatherings are a big source of spread

When Texas first adopted statewide precautions this year, those included limits on public places like bars and restaurants. But as the coronavirus crisis has continued, local officials and health workers say a growing number of cases are coming from small gatherings.

Increasingly, local health workers say they’re seeing cases that are tied to small family get-togethers rather than just public outings or events. That fits with findings from federal health officials, and it matters because many people who attend gatherings at the homes of friends and relatives may feel a false sense of security about seeing close acquaintances.

After months of social and economic sacrifices, Malynda Richardson, the EMS director for Presidio, acknowledges that some locals might be unwilling to cut out small get-togethers as well. But if people do decide to have a small event at someone’s home, they should continue to follow precautions, she said.

Keep the gatherings small, she says, and stay outside. Keep distancing and keep wearing masks as much as possible. With a number of promising vaccines on the way, she also echoed advice from other health officials: Missing a Thanksgiving party this year might be hard, but it’s better than having a relative become sick or die.

No symptoms doesn’t mean someone is safe (and vice versa)

Experts have known for months that people without symptoms can still spread coronavirus. But as coronavirus spreads through the tri-county, officials say too many locals are forgetting this fact.

Judge Cinderela Guevara has increasingly warned of criminal consequences for those who violate quarantine orders. Don Culbertson, a physician assistant at Marfa Clinic and director of Marfa’s contact tracing program, said he’s been trying to communicate that symptoms aren’t a good measure of how contagious someone is. A person’s individual symptoms are not a good benchmark for “their ability to transmit the virus,” he said.

That also means people who have been placed into quarantine need to run the whole course and not assume that a negative test can get them out. “You cannot test your way out of isolation or quarantine,” Culbertson said later in an email. “The ‘two negative tests’ to return to work or school is not a thing.”

On the flip side, Culbertson stressed that some people who have COVID — that is, the “long-haulers” — may continue to have symptoms weeks or months after they have stopped being contagious. In those cases, he said, people should trust that someone who’s already been released from quarantine is no longer a danger to others.

“If someone has had inflammation in their lungs, they might be coughing in their cubicle for weeks and months afterwards,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re positive and spewing the virus everywhere.”

Limit outings and trips

As coronavirus cases continue to climb in the tri-county, some residents may not see a problem with taking a day trip to El Paso or Midland/Odessa. But local officials are warning against that thinking.

While locals can certainly catch coronavirus locally, some places — like El Paso — are even riskier. And regardless, day trips can act like wind in a wildfire, spreading flames from one region to another and undermining attempts to control the spread.

On a related note, officials in El Paso this month said that big-box stores were becoming a major source of spread in the border city. For now, Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, is urging locals not to take trips there.

Across the Far West Texas region, coronavirus is “just so prevalent right now,” Dr. Schwartz said. “I would really, super advise people not to go into El Paso.”

Contact tracers aren’t cops

If people with coronavirus violate quarantine orders, they could well face criminal consequences. But those consequences would be meted out by law enforcement, not by health workers.

At a presentation last week, Marfa’s contact tracing team emphasized this point. They said they wanted locals to feel comfortable talking to contact tracers, whose role is to find coronavirus cases and limit spread, not to punish people.

State health workers have been overwhelmed by new cases, Culbertson said at the presentation, and Marfa’s local contact tracing efforts are more important than ever. For that reason, he said he didn’t want locals associating his contact tracing work with “any punitive measure.” “It could make us less popular,” he warned, potentially limiting the number of people who would call into Marfa’s hotline.

Go easy on the exercise

By now, most locals hopefully know that they can spread coronavirus even without symptoms. But they might not know that exercising without symptoms can still be risky, Culbertson said.

“Exerting oneself physically during COVID isn’t a great idea,” he said, noting that COVID-19 is an “inflammatory disease.” He recommended that people who have recovered should visit a doctor for a “post-COVID condition report,” so they can check on their blood pressure and other health metrics before returning to rigorous physical activity.

On a related note, health officials are increasingly warning of the risks of organized contact sports like football. Players of those sports don’t just come into close contact with players from other teams during games; they also are in close quarters with teammates during games and the long bus rides to away games. In an interview last week, Dr. Schwartz said he didn’t see “anything coming out of the CDC on how you can safely play football.” And while football season is over, basketball season — which typically involves indoor games — is starting next week.

Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero said in an interview Wednesday that there were no immediate plans to cancel contact sports, noting that school officials were doing a “great job” of sanitizing and enforcing CDC guidelines and that so far, most Marfa ISD cases appear to be “not school related.”

“We’re doing all the things that the CDC recommends, and we don’t see the spread happening within the school,” Aguero said. “That’s where we’re at right now. It could change.”