COVID roundup: The latest on vaccines, boosters and cases in West Texas

MARFA – West Texas is not immune to the COVID-19 delta variant, and in the past month, Presidio County has recorded over 40 confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus. Brewster County has added 30 cases to its numbers, and neighboring Jeff Davis County has added another handful. Together, the area has avoided seeing case numbers anywhere near the worst of the pandemic last winter, but healthcare officials are urging the continuation of safe practices to prevent a worsened surge.

Last Thursday and Friday, local healthcare facility the Marfa Clinic closed its doors to patients after its staff experienced an exposure to coronavirus. “It’s not surprising that a medical facility would see a COVID exposure,” said Dr. Christie Alexander, a provider at the clinic. She credits the uptick in cases to the delta variant, including some breakthrough cases where vaccinated individuals in the area have tested positive for the virus. 

After a mostly quiet summer, and with the pandemic raging on elsewhere in the country, the clinic has diagnosed 15 to 20 cases in the past month, Alexander said. But the doctor hasn’t been able to pinpoint any major source for those cases. “It’s been scattered all throughout. It hasn’t been one specific location or group,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s people visiting or internal to Marfa.”

According to data provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services, a majority of cases reported in the area at this time are “probable” rather than confirmed. Probable cases are determined using rapid antigen tests or when an individual has a combination of COVID-19 symptoms and a known exposure to someone with the disease.

Conversely, confirmed cases can only be identified using molecular testing, which has become more difficult to access in Far West Texas. Through much of the early parts of the pandemic, tri-county residents relied on Texas National Guard-run testing events, which brought hundreds of tests at a time to the region’s cities. Now the testing is subcontracted and available only sporadically.

Even among doctors’ offices, testing is limited. “We here at this clinic have had limited supplies to test everybody,” Alexander said. “We don’t have enough tests to test people before they travel. We’ve been conserving them for people who are symptomatic and have had a recent exposure and are concerned.” 

With fewer tests available than are requested, Alexander believes the case numbers in the tri-county could possibly be undercounted. “You can say 15 to 20 is not many, but how many are underreported, don’t get tested or decide to stay home and get better before going back out?” she asked. 

The doctor explained that because of the high vaccination rate in the area, the hospitalization rates should be able to remain lower than in other areas. That doesn’t mean that catching a breakthrough infection is harmless. “People we’ve talked to have had severe gastrointestinal symptoms that have kept them out of work for days,” she explained, saying it can impact peoples’ ability to work and bring home a paycheck.

The area has seen remarkably high vaccination rates, and some residents have sought information about getting the booster shot the White House planned to roll out to the public in late September. However, a government advisory panel dealt a blow to the plan last Friday, voting to endorse third dose booster vaccinations for immunocompromised individuals and 65-and-older individuals only, rather than the general public.

This week, Sul Ross State University will host another vaccine drive with DSHS, offering Pfizer and Moderna first, second and third doses –– for those who qualify –– to tri-county residents on September 30.

This summer alone, one Presidio County resident and three Brewster County residents have lost their lives to the illness, as the delta variant pushed the United States into another surge of cases. On Tuesday, a hotel and coffee shop in south Brewster County reported another COVID-related closure. La Posada Milagro Hotel’s Espresso y Poco Más coffee shop announced a closure until further notice due to three employees testing positive.

Dr. Alexander urged residents to be alert in the coming weeks, as the city of Marfa hosts its second outdoor festival within a month. She applauded the precautions taken by festival runners, but asked attendees and Marfa residents to stay vigilant.

“People need to be on the lookout for themselves. Are they starting to feel sick? Do they feel like they need to be tested?” Dr. Alexander said this week. “There is spread, and I think it’s important that people pay attention. They need to be wearing their masks and being careful again.”