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In the Permian Basin, Coronavirus Response Varies In Seriousness As Case Counts Rise

By Mitch Borden

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Permian Basin and across the state, the response from elected officials in the region’s two largest cities is markedly different. 

Since last Thursday, Midland and Odessa have recorded 184 new cases of COVID-19 between them, more than doubling the total of confirmed infections in just one month. 

Despite health officials in both communities asking residents to take the virus seriously, the tone between Odessa and Midland varies.

The City of Odessa has strongly recommended residents wear masks, launching a video campaign focused on preventative measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, like hand washing, wearing a face covering, and staying six feet away from other people. Odessa’s city council is continuing to meet virtually, and local leaders are available to answer questions twice a week during a virtual pandemic update.

But in Midland, city leaders appear to be less concerned with adhering to recommendations published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials. Most council members opt to not wear masks in public, and recently the city-sponsored a community forum where over a hundred people crowded into an auditorium. The seats were not spread apart and only a handful of panelists were wearing masks. Prominent city officials have encouraged gatherings apparently against the advice of most health authorities.

Midland Mayor Patrick Payton recently took to social media to invite Midlanders out for a weekly group run, which has become quite a large gathering.

City Councilwoman Lori Blong publicly stated in a Facebook post that it is only important “for certain individuals and groups” to wear face masks — which contradicts CDC guidelines that recommend everyone leaving their home should wear facial coverings. 

The City of Midland is not enforcing any of the rules for reopening businesses outlined by the state government. Payton has also openly disregarded concerns from residents related to businesses violating the state’s safety guidelines. 

Since March, at least 287 Midlanders have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 13 have died due to complications with the disease. In Odessa, 300 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 7 have died. 

Even though the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, so far the two communities have not seen a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 related deaths.

While city leaders have differing ideas about how to confront the pandemic, health officials based in both cities are giving the same recommendations.

Dr. Rohith Saravanan, the Chief Medical Officer at Odessa Regional Medical Center, addressed the spikes in Odessa during a virtual press conference earlier this week. Saravanan explained preventative measures like wearing a face covering, distancing yourself from other people, and washing hands regularly should be enough to help mitigate the spread of the virus. 

In Midland, Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer said a lack of social distancing is a driving factor in the higher rates of transmission the region is seeing. “There’s no question that community spread is real and that it’s related to the congregation of people and getting out and being more active,” Dr. Larry Wilson said during a recent update from the hospital.  

Yet, both Odessa and Midland are consistently seeing case counts rise every day, with both cities recently seeing more than twenty cases in a single day. Midland saw its largest increase since the pandemic began on Wednesday when 26 new cases were confirmed.

During an online briefing on Tuesday, Odessa Regional Medical Center’s Dr. Saravanan appeared frustrated. 

“A day with 20 new cases? That’s ridiculous.”

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.