A shortage of COVID tests and rise in cases afflict the tri-county area as the omicron variant approaches 

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

TRI-COUNTY — Medical professionals in the tri-county region are running up against a lack of resources as the highly contagious omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread nationally, leaving them unable to meet a growing demand for testing. 

The Centers for Disease Control has reported the omicron variant is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S., but research determining the characteristics and severity of the variant is ongoing. It has been widely reported that the variant presents more mild, cold-like symptoms, but can still be hazardous for vulnerable and unvaccinated populations. 

While local medical staff are unable to definitively say which variant is infecting their patients, they are noticing an uptick in positive cases and the presence of trademark omicron symptoms — and a dearth of testing supplies is preventing them from accurately gauging the breadth of the spread. The shortage of available tests is a national trend that the Biden administration is facing pressure to resolve.

Dr. Christie Alexander of the Marfa County Clinic said she has seen omicron symptoms — which can be similar to the common cold and include sneezing, coughing, runny nose and fatigue — in her recent patients, though she cannot definitively confirm the variant’s presence. But the clinic is currently out of vaccines, booster shots and COVID tests and are awaiting their next allotment from the Quest Diagnostics lab they work with. The clinic ran out of rapid and PCR tests after testing around 75 individuals the week after Christmas, said Alexander. They have ordered more of the PCR tests, which are more reliable than the rapid or at-home antigen tests. 

Last week, the clinic tested 10 to 15 people with rapid tests that were positive for the virus, and an additional three to five that had positive PCR tests. The actual number of positive cases in the Marfa area is unknown, but Alexander said the number of positive cases detected at Marfa County Clinic is likely higher than it would appear due the the fact that they sometimes tested only one person per household and received news of people testing positive at home.

“We heard all week last week from a number of people that were doing home tests and testing positive and calling for their symptoms or for instruction after testing positive at home. Those numbers I don’t have,” said Alexander. “It gives an idea that it’s definitely more than we had seen on a weekly basis prior.”

The clinic’s small staff was doing testing by appointment in order to manage the time of their two nurses, who also have to tend to non-COVID-related patients. Alexander said the colder weather and movement of social activities indoors could lead to a rise in cases and recommends everyone continue to wear masks in public, even if you are vaccinated. 

“Think about the community at large and who it is that we’re protecting. Even if you’re vaccinated, wear that mask because you could be an asymptomatic carrier that keeps this thing going on even longer,” said Alexander.  

Michaeleen Doucleff, a global health correspondent for National Public Radio who lives in Alpine, has been covering infectious diseases around the world for a decade. She said while Houston has been the epicenter of the omicron variant for the state of Texas for about a month, El Paso is now showing a dramatic increase in the number of cases, a telltale sign the omicron variant is present. She predicts it will begin to greatly affect the tri-county area within the coming week. 

“Omicron is super fast. I have a feeling it’s going to spread very quickly here,” said Doucleff.

She said while the numbers of positive cases in the U.S. of the delta variant doubled every 10 to 14 days, omicron cases are doubling every two to three days. Doucleff said it can be hard to gauge exactly how the fast-moving omicron variant will spread in the region because of a lack of testing.

“There’s not a ton of real testing in the tri-county area, relative to what a lot of the cities do,” said Doucleff. “A lot of people are getting it here but [those are] not reported cases.”

The aggressive spread of the omicron variant will present a number of challenges for the tri-county region where healthcare resources can be stretched thin. Individuals who had COVID in 2020 and early 2021 and are not vaccinated are very vulnerable to the omicron variant, said Doucleff, because they have little immunity against the new variant if they were infected over six months ago. 

Vaccines and boosters are very effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death from the new variant, according to the CDC. Since the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters can be delayed by a week or more, unvaccinated individuals should get their jabs as soon as possible, said Doucleff.

“If you’re going to get vaccinated, this is the week to get it. Don’t wait anymore,” she said.

She said omicron will likely pass through quickly, and while transmission has been low locally, for the coming weeks it is a good idea to mask up in larger public spaces to mitigate the risk of catching and transmitting the virus. 

But the lack of testing in the region makes it difficult to gauge omicron’s presence — in addition to the Marfa Country Clinic, other local entities are reporting shortages. Linda Molinar, CEO for Preventative Care Health Services, said the phone has been ringing off the hook at their Alpine, Presidio and Marfa locations due to an overwhelming demand for tests and other COVID-related requests the clinics are unable to fulfill. She said the lack of adequate testing is concerning, and most of their current patients, many of whom are not regulars at the clinics, are experiencing COVID symptoms. Recently, 3 out of 10 patients tested positive upon using a rapid test. 

Moderna vaccines and boosters for adults are still in stock, said Molinar. Appointments can be made for vaccinations and boosters on Mondays in Presidio, Tuesdays in Alpine, and for homebound individuals that may be located in Marfa, arrangements can be made for the immunization to be brought directly to their residence. 

Molinar stressed the need for another source or organization to help provide local testing to help alleviate the clinics. While they are doing their best to keep up with the COVID needs in the community, said Molinar, they have to balance those demands with scheduled, preventative appointments for patients with chronic illnesses and urgent requests for sick individuals. At the moment, the PCHS clinics are booking preventative appointments two weeks out and trying to see patients with more immediate needs within two to three days. 

Earlier in the pandemic, the Texas National Guard ran testing sites in the region that were coordinated by the Texas Division of Emergency Management — but those sites were shut down in 2020 and have not returned since.

What testing is available, however, indicates an uptick in positive cases. At a testing event on January 4 in Presidio hosted by the Presidio ISD Police Department, 44 out of roughly 200 people tested positive for the virus — out of those with positive results, 14 were students, four were teachers, one was a school employee, and 25 were household members of students, according to Joel Nuñez, chief of police for Presidio ISD and emergency management coordinator for the district. 

“This is a record in one day for positives,” said Nuñez. “That’s a lot for a small town.”

Testing events use rapid tests and take place every day Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the PISD Police Department office.  

On January 6 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., children ages 5-11 can receive vaccines at the Presidio Elementary Gym. Nuñez said it is preferable to call ahead at 432-229-1164 to get on the list. 

On January 13 Presidio ISD Police Department will host another vaccination event for everyone ages 12 and older from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. January 13 at the Franco Middle School Gym. Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and boosters will be available, said Nuñez. The entire community is welcome and appointments are not required. Proof of vaccination cards are required for those receiving the second dose or booster.

Malynda Richardson, EMS director for Presidio Emergency Services, said she is actively requesting more tests for her EMS staff. She said there has been a surge in COVID cases in the area, but was unable to provide a precise number of cases. Richardson was primarily concerned about people with the omicron variant inadvertently spreading the virus because they believe themselves to have a common cold. 

In Brewster County, Highland Drug in Alpine reported they have all vaccines and boosters in stock and are talking walk-ins. Like others, they said they have had a hard time keeping tests in stock. The Prescription Shop in Alpine is offering vaccines and boosters by appointment on Fridays. Tests are available sporadically, said pharmacist Meredith Schoch. She said she has seen a big increase in demand for tests since a few days before Christmas.

Given a likely omicron surge, educators will need to make determinations about in-person learning and preventative measures. Michael Pacheco, chief of staff at Sul Ross University, said a decision has been made to delay the start of the spring semester in person from January 10 to the following week. Classes will begin January 10 but will be online for a week to give students additional time to isolate and get tested after the holiday break in case they contracted the virus. The university has a self-report form online where students can go to notify the school of a positive test. 

On-campus residents are required to test for COVID the day they arrive back on campus, said Pacheco. Sul Ross will provide the tests necessary for that procedure. They expect to continue to offer testing twice a week as they did in the fall semester. According to Sul Ross’ website, during the Fall 2021 semester a total of 4,921 people on campus were tested with 52 testing positive for the virus. 

Pacheco said Sul Ross has given around 800 or 900 COVID tests to Brewster County Emergency Services since this summer.