With COVID-19 cases on the rise, tri-county residents seek information on testing and vaccines

Staff photo by Maisie Crow / As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, due in part to the delta variant, tri-county residents are looking for answers on testing and vaccines.

TRI-COUNTY — On Monday, July 26, Alpine resident Megan Sides found out her 64-year-old mother was COVID-positive. She had been hospitalized a few days prior after spending several weeks with what the family thought was a bad cold, which turned into a fever. On Friday, they were told she had a viral infection and was being sent home. Three days later, they learned that she’d caught the highly contagious virus now responsible for 613,000 deaths in the United States — and 52,000 in Texas alone.

Although her mother lives in Fort Davis, she visits Alpine regularly to help take care of Megan’s grandmother. Following the news, Megan made 15 calls to different clinics and pharmacies, looking for a way for herself, her grandmother and their part-time caretaker to get tested. She couldn’t find anyone who was doing non-referral testing, she couldn’t get a referral without first getting an appointment and she couldn’t get an appointment right away. Each clinic she called referred her somewhere else, she said, and no one seemed to have any answers.

“It was just very frustrating; there seemed to be a lack of information and no easy way to find it,” Megan wrote to The Big Bend Sentinel. “There has to be an easier way.”

Finally, she got an appointment with her general practitioner four days after initially calling to get tested. Unfortunately, her grandmother’s doctor wasn’t available until the second week of August, but they happened to have a friend who was visiting El Paso and able to return with home tests for them from a Walgreens there. All three of them all tested negative, and her mother’s symptoms don’t seem much worse than those of a cold at the moment. Still, she said, “it’s scary to think about how much worse it could have been.”

Megan’s mother is a breakthrough case. That means she tested positive for COVID despite receiving a vaccine. With cases on the rise, due in part to the novel delta variant and a well-documented lack of medical resources in the region, Megan is just one of many residents of the tri-county area who has voiced frustration about her lack of options. But unfortunately, many of these factors are also out of practitioners’ control.

COVID-19 Tests

Dr. Christie Alexander of the Marfa Clinic told The Big Bend Sentinel that although her clinic is testing regularly, testing kits don’t always arrive in a timely fashion which in turn means that they run out of test materials. While this hasn’t occurred too often, she said she foresees it happening more frequently now that testing has picked up again in the wake of the delta variant.

“Sometimes you only get them in packs of four, or you request them from the lab and they’re happy to send them to you but it’s like; how many can they give you at a time?” she explained. “Call the office, see if we have the test available, and then absolutely come get tested.”

Another factor to consider is that getting tested the very day one gets exposed may not provide an accurate result, she said. This is why doctors will usually recommend a three to five-day window for patients to self-isolate before getting tested.

“If you’re going to come in contact with the virus, it takes a couple of days for that viral load to occur to determine if the case is truly positive,” said Dr. Alexander. “If you think you have been exposed to someone today but you don’t have any symptoms, it’s better to quarantine in your home, and then come in and get tested on day four or five or when you develop symptoms.”

Ruth Hucke, a spokesperson for Big Bend Regional Medical Center, told The Big Bend Sentinel that the hospital has seen a “significant increase in individuals seeking COVID-19 tests,” as well as “an increase in individuals testing positive.” Currently, Hucke said, BBRMC has three patients hospitalized with COVID. Both she and Dr. Alexander recommend self-isolation pending test results.

The increased demand for COVID tests seems to be a pattern across the region. Preventative Care Health Services CEO Linda Molinar said that her organization has seen an increase in testing this past month, although she was not able to confirm how many of these people have tested positive.

Molinar also said that PCHS — which houses Family Health Services of Alpine, Marfa Community Health Clinic and the Presidio County Medical Clinic — offers COVID testing, but that individuals have to be symptomatic in order to get tested. Prices range depending on the type of test, which the patient’s doctor must determine.

The Big Bend Regional Medical Center also offers testing with a provider’s orders. This includes rapid, in-office testing for those with symptoms. Testing is free, but the cost of the office visit may vary. BBRMC also offers an uninsured self-pay discount.

Testing at the Marfa Clinic is generally free. Fees are waived if insurance passes them on to the patient, or if they are self-pay.

Christina Wright, a nurse at the Texas Department of State Health Services in Presidio County told The Big Bend Sentinel that, although there is a nationwide initiative to ramp up COVID-19 tests, her entity is not yet testing because they are waiting for supplies and don’t know when they will arrive. The National Guard had previously been testing people in the region, but this hasn’t been available for some time now.

COVID-19 Vaccinations 

Professionals are also recommending getting vaccinated and going back to wearing masks in order to minimize the risk of contagion. According to Wright, Presidio County continues to have the highest vaccination rate in the state of Texas, which is a good thing.

“When we look at states with the lowest vaccination rates, we see the highest rates of COVID infection,” she said. “This is proof COVID vaccines work. Nothing could be more important for yourself, your family and your community than to get vaccinated.”

DSHS is currently offering Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Alpine on Mondays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; Presidio on Tuesdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Van Horn on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m; and Marfa on Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Pfizer vaccine is only eligible for those aged 12 and up, and Moderna is available for ages 18 and up. Children aged 12 to 17 need parental consent and someone who is at least 18 years old to accompany them.

BBRMC is no longer offering vaccines, but the Highland Drug and Prescription Shop pharmacies in Alpine are both offering the Moderna vaccine by appointment. Family Health Services of Alpine is also offering Moderna shots on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon. In Presidio, the Presidio County Medical Clinic is offering Moderna shots on Mondays, starting at 10:30 a.m. The Marfa Community Health Clinic offers shots as well, but hours may vary.

“This is the time that we need to go back to what we were doing in the early days of COVID to keep everybody safe and to keep our hospital admissions down so that our hospitals don’t get overrun,” said Dr. Alexander. “We need to stop giving this virus bodies to mutate in, and that’s the bottom line.”