As military testing teams plan demobilization, future of local testing is uncertain

A scene from a military-run testing site in Marfa in April. Photo by Maisie Crow

FAR WEST TEXAS — Presidio County residents have relied on military testing teams for months to provide local testing sites, but those teams could soon be going away. At a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting last week, Gary Mitschke, the Presidio County emergency management coordinator, said the teams were set to demobilize this month. He said local officials would now need to handle testing in the region.

“The testing today and tomorrow will likely be the last for some time,” Mitschke said at the Thursday, November 12, meeting. Going forward, “the testing will likely fall to the local jurisdictions to pick that up and take it.” Plans to purchase COVID-19 test kits and a testing machine were on the agenda at commissioners court, where Mitschke explained those supplies would be used to carry out local testing under the control of the county, instead of relying on state-run sites.

In an interview this week, Mitschke said he had first been informed “that was it” for the military-run testing. “After the 15th, they were going to demobilize the national guard teams,” Mitschke said. But then he received good news on Monday.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management was able to secure one additional round of testing with the MTTs. (A full list of dates and locations is listed in The Big Bend Sentinel.) However, Mitschke was also told that would be the last round of tests before the military teams “demobilized,” making the future of MTT-run testing uncertain.

The Texas National Guard has served West Texas residents since April, when state-funded testing first arrived. The Big Bend Sentinel reached out to TDEM to determine when demobilization of those guardsmen would occur, whether there were plans for future testing teams to return to the Big Bend area, and to ask what TDEM’s advisement is for local communities looking for testing.

In a statement, TDEM’s Chief of Media and Communications Seth Christensen responded that “TDEM continues to work with our Texas Military Department partners and utilize turn-key vendors to conduct mobile testing as requested by local officials across the state.”

“As has been the case since April, local officials who identify a need for testing in their community may request mobile testing from the state of Texas through their local TDEM Assistant Chief or District Coordinator,” he wrote. “To date, state mobile testing teams have collected and resulted over 1.4 million samples.”

Avelardo “Al” Talavera, a district coordinator for TDEM, put it more bluntly in an email on Monday, telling West Texas county judges and EMCs that TDEM had learned West Texas “will have the military teams for one last week.” The military testing teams will demobilize “after the 24th of November,” the coordinator told officials. “I scheduled you all for one more date of testing.” The coordinator shared a schedule for West Texas testing that begins on Friday in Presidio.

TDEM was still “working on other avenues for testing,” Mitschke said, referencing conversations he had with Talavera. Mitschke said the little remaining coronavirus relief funding Presidio County had might be used for the purchase of test kits. “What we’ll be looking at is testing on a case by case basis or if there’s a hot spot,” he said. “Doing testing for the general public, I just don’t know how the county could do that, whether it’s monetary or personnel.”

Meanwhile, Linda Molinar, the CEO at Preventative Care Health Services, said that the company’s clinics are seeing a spike in residents interested in getting tested right now. While their clinic only tests those who are showing COVID-19 symptoms, she said the clinic’s staff is overwhelmed by the demand for tests.

“Even these past three weeks, we haven’t been able to take care of even that capacity, even the ones who were very sick. That’s what’s frustrating,” Molinar said. Nurses at PCHS have been working through lunch to try to get more people tested lately.

“We currently are short of staff in Presidio. We can’t find nurses to work from there,” she said. The clinic is struggling to find nurses for Presidio, but also has openings for nurses in Alpine and in Marfa too. “We had a lot of our patients – and we know they’re sick – and they were having to drive to Marfa, but even Marfa is shorthanded.”

Molinar said there would be ramifications from being unable to test people who want tests. “People are going to be sick, there won’t be a way to diagnose them, they won’t quarantine for 14 days, and they’ll quarantine for a few days until they feel better,” she said. A lack of testing can lead to further spread, she said, because people might dismiss their symptoms as (for example) allergies or stomach issues, returning to their normal lives without doing a full length of quarantine and potentially exposing others to COVID-19 while they are still contagious.

“That’s why testing is so important,” she said. “When they hear they’re positive, they’ll not want to be around their family and they’ll quarantine. If they don’t get tested, they’ll assume it’s something else.”

Even the MTT-run testing site struggled to meet demand on its most recent visit to Presidio. While 555 people were tested, Commissioner Eloy Aranda told county officials that others had been turned away, despite wanting to be tested.

Molinar has heard about the demobilization and said her offices have been contacted several times by different agencies asking if the clinic could provide more testing.

“They wanted to see if we had the capacity or even the desire, but we always say, ‘We have the desire but not the capacity,’” Molinar said. Her staff has provided reports to those agencies that show their clinics’ testing capacity is “very limited.”

“We definitely need help from outside agencies,” she said. PCHS staff has previously shadowed the National Guard during state testing sites, but Molinar said they quickly learned it was out of reach for PCHS to take on.

“They have their own system that’s sophisticated, tests that are easy and for a whole day they have 16 people,” Molinar said of the military testing teams. “It would require 16 volunteers from our community, and that would be to do 200 tests in a day,” Molinar said. It would also put their clinic out of commission for a day, something they can’t afford given the needs of both regular patients and those with COVID-19.

“For us, where we send our labs, they require an office visit because of insurance,” Molinar said. “If people don’t have insurance, we’re able to send out tests for the uninsured and bill it to the federal government, but that’s only until December.”

“We should be worried,” the PCHS CEO added. She was concerned about the growing need for testing and the lack of personnel to carry it out.

Molinar wasn’t sure what the future of testing in the area would look like. “It’s been eight months. I know different people in our community have tried to come up with volunteers to get testing done and it’s not been feasible. The university has, the schools in Alpine did, but then the rest of the community are left with nothing.”