In state COVID data, possible signs of hope

TRI-COUNTY — The Big Bend region was hit hard by coronavirus late last year — but according to state health data, the situation may be improving. When The Big Bend Sentinel published our final issue of 2020, there were almost 300 active coronavirus cases in the tri-county.

The official tallies of active cases declined throughout the holiday season, and at press time on Tuesday there were just more than 100 cases in the tri-county, a more than 50% reduction. Meanwhile, regional data also suggests that hospitalizations in the regional hospitals are also going down.

As usual, there are some big caveats with this data. While active case-counts in Brewster County and Jeff Davis County have continued to decline, those in Presidio County have started to creep up again, going from 35 active cases on Monday to 38 on Tuesday. In a social media post on Tuesday, Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson said that recent testing in Presidio city had “turned up a significant number of COVID positive residents.”

Almost a year into the coronavirus crisis, it’s still unclear if Texas is providing adequate testing, contact tracing or other resources to adequately inform Texans on the conditions in their regions — particularly in sparsely populated places like Far West Texas. The tri-county last saw free testing sites in late December, but some residents have not received results, and there were also complaints of inconclusive tests. Both these issues — pending and inconclusive tests — could impact the area’s positivity rate.

Since Brewster County Health Authority Dr. Ekta Escovar resigned in September, The Big Bend Sentinel has not seen adequate data on metrics like local positivity rates. And the latest batch of state-sponsored testing sites in the region, which started on Wednesday and will continue this week, could well uncover new cases in the tri-county.

Hospital data — which provides a more accurate window on the health of residents — also offers a muddled picture. According to the latest data shared by Brewster County on Wednesday, there were 5 daily hospitalizations for coronavirus — a figure that’s held steady since around mid-December.

On the regional level, though, COVID hospitalizations are declining. The state’s Trauma Service Area J, in which the tri-county sits, reported on December 4 that more than 16% of its hospitalizations were due to coronavirus.

On January 4 — the most recent date for which data is available — that figure had fallen to 12.2%. That’s still not great, but it’s a big improvement, and it’s better than most of the state’s other 21 trauma service areas.

Even with imperfect data, some local officials are seeing signs of hope. At an Alpine City Council meeting on Tuesday, City Manager Erik Zimmer said that while deaths and cases are still going up, “the [active] case counts in this part of the state have gone down a bit.” He attributed that to a few factors, including public buy-in for testing and responsible decision-making by residents.

Zimmer also pointed to a noteworthy metric out of Alpine: For the first time in months, Sul Ross State University this week reported zero active cases on its campus. Some of that, Zimmer acknowledged, was likely because SRSU went all-remote last year and sent most students off campus for the holidays. But even still, he said, it was a great sign that there were no active cases among employees.