Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Here's How Healthcare Professionals In West Texas Are Preparing For Coronavirus

A sign telling visitors at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin to alert staff if they’ve traveled to a region with cases of COVID-19 and have certain respiratory symptoms. (Julia Reihs / KUT)

By Sally Beauvais and Mitch Borden

As the strand of coronavirus causing the disease COVID-19 continues to crop up globally and in cities across the U.S., healthcare professionals in Texas are stressing that there are still no known cases of the virus being spread within communities in the state. Recently-documented cases in San Antonio and the Houston area have all been travel-related.

While research and data related to coronavirus is quickly evolving, right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts it’s likely that eventually, “widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur.” 

In West Texas, healthcare professionals are preparing for the possibility of spread.

“We’d rather plan for the worst and hope for the best, and be prepared in case we do see it in West Texas,” Dr. Ekta Escovar, a pediatrician on the staff of Big Bend Regional Medical Center said.

What you should know about COVID-19

  • The virus itself, broadly referred to as coronavirus, is called SARS-CoV-2. It causes the disease COVID-19.
  • As compared to other recent outbreaks, this strand of coronavirus is “not very deadly, but is highly contagious,” according to Escovar. It is more deadly than the seasonal flu, which generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected, and less deadly than a disease like SARS, which killed about 10% of those infected during the outbreak in 2002-2003. Read more about why the mortality rate is hard to pin down here and here
  • At this time, the most common presenting symptoms of COVID-19 are a dry, hacking cough, shortness of breath, and a fever of 101 degrees or higher.
  • The majority of cases of COVID-19 are in adults 60 years and older. Children are so far the age demographic least susceptible to the disease. Learn more about who faces the greatest risk of severe illness from coronavirus here
  • Some cities in the U.S. are beginning to see community spread of the virus. That means people getting diagnosed have no history of travel to high-risk places, and no contact with someone known to have COVID-19. As of the afternoon of Friday, March 6th, all documented cases in Texas are travel-related. 

What you can do to minimize your exposure to COVID-19

  • The virus causing COVID-19 is spread person-to-person is through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and contact with infected surfaces or objects. 
  • Wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds each time. “You want scrub between your fingers, in the webbings,” Escovar said. “You want to actually scrape your nails against the palm, so you can actually get soap under your fingernails.”
  • Try not to touch your face.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Regularly sanitize surfaces and objects you frequently touch, like work desks, home surfaces, remotes and cell phones. According to Escovar, data shows that using bleach with a 1 to 50 dilution (that 4 teaspoons of bleach in 4 cups of water), or hydrogen peroxide 0.2% or stronger are both effective, cheap methods to disinfect surfaces and objects at home.
  • Use hand sanitizer with 62% or higher alcohol content, according to Escovar.
  • The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from COVID-19. The agency says facemasks should be reserved for healthcare professionals and people who show symptoms of COVID-19, to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. Read more about the CDC’s prevention recommendations here

Preparedness in the Big Bend Region
<br><i>Marfa Public Radio’s Sally Beauvais talks with Dr. Ekta Escovar about how residents of the Big Bend should prepare for the possibility of coronavirus reaching West Texas.</i></br>

Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine has created a task force that is working to stay up-to-date with the latest data on coronavirus, as well as updated practices for screening and triage. 

Dr. Ekta Escovar, who is on the task force, is recommending that residents of the Big Bend limit unnecessary travel out of the area. 

“If we want to keep West Texas in a nice isolated bubble, then we need to stop leaving West Texas,” Escovar said. 

As long as we don’t see community spread in the state, travel within Texas is okay by Escovar. But she strongly discourages trips to the East and West Coasts and the Chicago area, where spread has been documented. She also recommends people avoid unnecessary international travel.

Her recommendations are more stringent than the CDC’s at this time. 

Escovar acknowledged that the influx of visitors the Big Bend region will see during spring break brings new risks to the area. She’s urging hotel staff and Airbnb owners to be extra thorough in their cleaning processes during turnover.

“If we get an outbreak that comes this way, what we don’t want is a bunch of cases in a very short period of time that overwhelms our resources,” Dr. Ekta Escovar said. “Our little 25 bed hospital, even with all the preparations we’ve done, we do not have the manpower and facilities to accommodate that.”

The hospital’s emphasis is on getting residents in a preventative mindset, and slowing any potential spread of the virus. 

Should the area see severe cases of COVID-19 in the future, Big Bend Regional Medical Center has two ICU beds and two ventilators to support and stabilize critical patients until they can be transported to a larger hospital. At this time, the area’s regional center for severely ill patients is in El Paso.

Escovar is asking residents who may have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, or have traveled to an area where there is an outbreak, and are experiencing mild symptoms to self-quarantine and let their primary care provider or the hospital know.

Big Bend Regional Medical Center’s main line is (432) 837-3447; you can ask to speak to the infection control nurse or explain your situation to the person who answers.

For general questions about hospital preparedness or personal prevention strategies, Escovar recommends calling Ruth Hucke at the hospital, at (432) 837-0254. 

Preparedness in the Permian Basin
<br><i>Marfa Public Radio’s Carlos Morales and Mitch Borden discuss the precautions Midland leaders and healthcare officials went over at a recent planning meeting.</i> </br>

In Midland, rather than planning for the worst, officials are leaving that stage for later while local governmental institutions work to spread basic information to prevent or mitigate a major outbreak in the Midland-Odessa metro area. 

Instead of “creating a quarantine environment,” Midland’s Mayor Patrick Payton says the city is “trying to create a cautious environment.”

Earlier this week, leaders from the City of Midland, Midland Memorial Hospital, and Midland Independent School District gathered at a round table to discuss their plans. The messaging they landed on is to urge residents that if they feel sick or manifest the symptoms of the disease the coronavirus causes, is to head home and self-quarantine.

Val Sparks, who specializes at infectious disease prevention at Midland Memorial Hospital, explained that if an individual who is infected with the coronavirus went to an emergency room, clinic or doctor’s office when they felt sick that could possibly spread the virus to even more people.

Instead, when residents isolate themselves, Sparks says they should call their primary care physician who can screen them from afar. If an individual doesn’t have a  doctor or is unable to reach them, Sparks said, “then they are welcome to call 68Nurse.” 

68Nurse, is a hotline provided by Midland Memorial Hospital that residents in the Permian Basin can reach healthcare professionals 24 hours a day for free at 1-432-686-8773 that Midland Memorial Hospital is repurposing to screen patients for coronavirus symptoms and risk factors. These over the phone screenings will help healthcare officials determine who needs to be actually tested for the coronavirus. 

Mayor Patrick Payton confidently assured the press at the recent roundtable that “Our hospital and city health department are prepared” and  then went on to say “if we begin to see an expansion of [the coronavirus.] Then we [will] marshal our resources again -- come back together and see what is another level of response we have to take care of.”

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.