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Pecos County coronavirus case counts skyrocket amid outbreak at prison

A member of the National Guard in Texas holds vials that are used to collect testing samples for COVID-19. The state has provided temporary drive through testing sites across Texas. (Maisie Crow / The Big Bend Sentinel)

By Stephen Paulsen, The Big Bend Sentinel

FORT STOCKTON — There are signs of a growing coronavirus outbreak in Pecos County, as the number of cases skyrockets at a local prison and continues to increase in the broader community.

It’s the first time coronavirus cases have surged in Far West Texas outside of metro areas like El Paso and Midland-Odessa. Fort Stockton is the gateway to the Big Bend, the last stop on Interstate 10 before westbound drivers turn off for Marathon, Alpine, Presidio and Marfa.

In a news release on Tuesday, Brewster County officials took note of the rise, urging residents to limit travel to Fort Stockton “if at all possible.”

“We recommend exercising caution if making trips into Fort Stockton or other areas within Pecos County,” the news release stated. “We recommend minimizing travel to the area.”

As recently as last Thursday, Pecos had just 28 cases, but after the state reported dozens of new cases at local prisons all at once, the number more than tripled over the ensuing days. At press time on Wednesday, 102 cases were reported on the state’s map.

The county has reported no deaths or hospitalizations from the virus as recently as Monday, according to Pecos County Judge Joe Shuster.

A majority of the cases have come from just one facility in Fort Stockton: the Texas Department of Criminal Justice N5 unit, which at press time has at least 87 coronavirus cases, including active cases in at least 68 inmates and six employees. Twelve employees and one inmate at the facility have recovered.

The city’s James Lynaugh Unit also has three confirmed cases, two active and one recovered, both involving employees. In a town of around 8,000 people, those two facilities can house more than 2,000 prisoners.

Most at risk for infection are other prisoners in those units. But as employees clock in and out, there are also signs the contagion is spreading beyond the walls.

Of Pecos’s 28 cases on Thursday, at least 13 — over a third — involved local residents who were employees at the units, according to reporting by The Fort Stockton Pioneer. And even those numbers likely hide the true extent of the prison’s outbreak, with some employees commuting to work at the facility, meaning confirmed cases may be counted in other counties.

The cases were found as a result of expanding testing at Texas prisons, especially for people who don’t have symptoms. In a news release from early May, the agency said it was “deploying significant testing” aimed at finding asymptomatic patients in the prison system.

“The agency continues to be agile in its response to the pandemic,” the news release added. At press time, around 66,500 Texas prisoners had been tested, according to TDCJ.

What’s less clear, though, is how long it took state officials to report those rises to Pecos County. When state coronavirus figures for the county shot up on Friday, county officials “pretty well figured out it had to be TDCJ,” Shuster said in a phone interview on Monday.

TDCJ had deployed a team to local prisons to test inmates, Shuster said, but it wasn’t until Monday that he learned for sure the cases were tied to prisons.

“TDCJ does not share those figures with us so that we can stay on top of it,” Shuster said. “They didn’t call and tell me. They’re pretty tight-lipped.”

In interviews on Tuesday, TDCJ officials acknowledged they weren’t sharing inmate infection stats from prison facilities with local officials in those counties. Instead, TDCJ operates like its own local health authority and reports figures directly to the state, said Jeremy Desel, director of communications for the agency.

The Texas Department of State Health Services did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information on how long it took state health officials to report those figures to counties. But Desel said the turnaround took long enough that, by the time county officials learned about cases in prisons, those cases were “generally speaking already past quarantine times” and “not active cases anymore.”

The Big Bend Sentinel has previously covered state reporting issues around coronavirus testing and statistics. Last week, for example, we reported that state health officials took days to add positive coronavirus cases in Presidio and Hudspeth counties to their state tracking system.

Those issues appear to also be at play here. But rather than just slowing reporting times for new cases, this particular problem could ultimately artificially inflate case counts in an area, Desel said.

“If [local officials] are taking info about our facilities and adding it to the county’s, then they’re double-counting those cases,” he said.

Pecos County Judge Shuster told The Fort Stockton Pioneer he was hopeful that TDCJ and local county numbers were not being conflated. After all, he noted, prisoners aren’t out in public, where they might seek additional testing. But employees are, and it’s easy to imagine scenarios where a prison employee could get tested at work, only to be separately tested by local health workers or the National Guard.

Further complicating matters, at least seven N5 employees who tested positive were later determined to be El Paso County residents. Without more transparency from DSHS — especially when it comes to reporting delays — it’s hard to say how county officials could avoid this problem altogether.

The surging case-counts at the N5 Unit are just the latest in a rash of infections at Texas prisons, where experts have long warned that close quarters and inadequate hygiene procedures could serve as incubators for the disease.

At press time on Wednesday, around 6,600 Texas prisoners have been confirmed to have the virus, and 44 of the state’s 106 prison units, including both N5 and Lynaugh, are under precautionary medical lockdown. At least 70 prisoners across the state have died.