Situation worsens in Presidio as state leaders double down on reopening

PRESIDIO — Around late October, an Ojinaga man started having an asthma attack. His wife took him to a hospital in the Mexican border city, where he was ultimately discharged.

But around 6 a.m., the couple sought additional treatment, setting out toward the Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, according to Presidio police. They made it as far as the Exxon gas station in the middle of Presidio, where the man then had a heart attack and died.

Jose “Cabby” Cabezuela, the Presidio police chief, responded to the scene, helping to load the man into a bodybag. A few days later, he got the news he had feared: The man was positive for coronavirus.

Cabezuela decided to get tested too and was relieved to get a negative result. But not everyone in Presidio PD has been so lucky, he said.

Of the four officers on the force, one tested positive for coronavirus as cases surged in the border city last month. Chief Cabezuela has adopted new precautions for his officers, including limiting contact with people who might have coronavirus and no longer servicing emergency calls at the port.

At the Presidio-Ojinaga port, it’s just too risky, Cabezuela said. People who need assistance at the port “are going to have to reach out to some other agency.”

But even in city limits, Cabezuela is urging Presidio police to limit their contacts when on the job. For example, if someone calls in a health emergency and Presidio PD is just there for backup, officers shouldn’t get too close to the caller. “Everytime we go on an ambulance call, we make sure we are very well protected,” Cabezuela explained. “We never know if [the caller] has coronavirus or not.”

“I think it’s heating up,” he said of the city’s outbreak in recent weeks. “It’s getting worse and worse.”

At press time, Presidio County had 237 cases of coronavirus, according to state data. Seventy-three of those cases are active, and many are in Presidio, an already vulnerable border city with high shares of poverty, comorbidities, and multi-generational households with elderly residents.

In a news release on Tuesday, Judge Guevara announced 23 new cases in the county. Nineteen were in Presidio and one case had no given location. With case information arriving out of date — and with some state data missing information like addresses and infection dates — it’s hard to say definitively how many cases there are in the city.

Compounding the issue is the struggle to get tested in Presidio. While 555 people were tested at a state-run testing site in Presidio last week, not all who wanted to get tested were able to.

In theory, Presidio locals can also get tested, sometimes for a cost, at the local health clinic — but now, that clinic says they are too understaffed to provide all the testing that’s needed. It’s also unclear if the state testing teams will return to the area anytime soon, as The Big Bend Sentinel is also reporting this week.

Active infections have fluctuated across the region for months, and local health officials say no obvious culprits, like a big public event, are driving the case spike in Presidio. But Presidio’s outbreak comes at a bad time, as hospitals fill up in the metropolitan areas surrounding the Big Bend region.

Three hours away, the crisis in El Paso has been in the news for weeks. The city regularly records thousands of new cases per day and has been low on medical resources since at least October.

Governor Greg Abbott ordered additional medical personnel to El Paso. El Paso County Judge Richard Samaniego issued emergency shutdown orders in what he said was an effort to save lives. But that news didn’t go over well with state officials, who have said local leaders can’t adopt rules that are stricter than state officials.

Abbott, who has not held a news conference on coronavirus restrictions since September, said Samaniego had “failed to do his job” and was “illegally shutting down entire businesses.” Texas Attorney Ken Paxton took Judge Samaniego to court over the restrictions, ultimately winning in appeals court last week.

When the news came in that nonessential businesses in El Paso County could stay open during a coronavirus spike, Paxton released a statement calling the decision “outstanding” and describing Samaniego a “tyrant who thinks he can ignore state law.”

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in the statement.

As Presidio County’s case numbers have climbed, those legal fights in El Paso have made it clear to local officials here that they can’t impose new restrictions. Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara wishes that weren’t the case.

Asked in a phone interview Monday whether she wished she was legally allowed to impose new restrictions, Guevara said, “Yes, definitely.”

“Maybe not to close businesses,” she said, “but for people to just go out for essential things.”

Case numbers throughout the region have gotten so bad that they’ve started to sicken state health officials, including in Region 9/10, which covers the Big Bend region. In a remarkable news release last week, Judge Guevara highlighted the “dire impact” she said the surge was having on regional workers of the Texas Department of State Health Services, including a “disruption in their ability to report cases.”

A “high number” of regional health workers were quarantining, she said, and the state agency will not be able to provide jurisdictions with the information needed to provide press releases” on new cases. A DSHS building had also closed due to quarantine, she explained, and state workers couldn’t get access to hard drives with information.

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, DSHS said they provided local officials with “all of the information that the local officials need to make decisions.” But they did acknowledge infections at a regional health facility, stating that “there were some cases in the regional office in El Paso that required additional staff to quarantine and work from home last week.”

The agency said it had been in contact with Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority, to ensure he was getting all necessary data. But in an interview Monday, Dr. Schwartz said much of the regional health department was “out with COVID” and that the understaffed agency was sending him “gibberish” case reports.

In some cases, Dr. Schwartz said, the department didn’t even provide information on which city a person lives in. Presidio County Judge Guevara later confirmed this, noting that the releases sometimes referenced street addresses that exist in both Marfa and Presidio.

“The key people in [DSHS Region 9/10] are sick,” Dr. Schwartz said. “We’re kind of screwed.”

Malynda Richardson, the EMS director in Presidio, is urging people to avoid even small family gatherings to avoid the spread of coronavirus. John Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, is also encouraging residents to hunker down, last week criticizing a decision to reopen local schools.

On the ground, though, it’s unclear if those warnings are making headwinds. Presidio has never had the anti-lockdown sentiments of other places in the tri-county, with many residents complying with restrictions like mask rules, even if begrudgingly. But with the holiday season around the corner, and as many Americans deal with what experts call “pandemic fatigue,” some Presidio residents are questioning whether the precautions are worth all the sacrifices.

At Presidio ISD, school officials voted last month to send students who were failing or skipping classes back to school. The district had around 18 cases at press time, according to its school tracker.

Asked about the situation, Superintendent Ray Vasquez noted that “cases are spiking everywhere” and said infections were “not just a school issue.”

The school was continuing to take precautions, he said, crediting school custodians for a “phenomenal job” cleaning out buildings. But for PISD, he said, remote learning was not working. Around 75 percent of remote students were failing, he said.

At U.S.-Mexico ports of entry across the southern border, including in Presidio, traffic has crept up slightly since earlier this year. But it’s still far behind its pre-COVID rates, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Officially, the U.S.-Mexico border is still closed to all but essential travel. But many residents live and work in both countries, or have relatives in Chihuahua, currently Mexico’s hardest hit state by the virus.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s just essential travel,” Judge Guevara said of the port of entry. She cited arrest records at the port, which showed the residence of crossers, as well as the long lines over holidays.

Guevara — like other officials in the region — thinks cross-border travel could explain why border communities like Presidio and Redford are getting hit hard. But regardless of traffic and the border, the binational community in the area makes it difficult to track cases or figure out possible points of exposure.