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Short Notice and Massive Turnout Complicates Coronavirus Testing At Sul Ross State University


By Diana Nguyen and Carlos Morales

Following a spike in coronavirus cases in the Big Bend region, residents turned out in record numbers for a three-day round of COVID-19 testing at Sul Ross State University this past week.

But short notice and a high demand for coronavirus tests ballooned wait times to several hours, and residents recounted a confusing and frustrating process.

Testing in the region has been severely limited so far, with most of the region’s testing capacity coming from mobile units that have been deployed to Far West Texas and other underserved parts of the state. Over the three days, 753 people were tested, more than all of the combined tests from mobile units and local providers since April.

Although the state planned to set up more mobile units in the region, Michael Pacheco, SRSU’s Chief of Staff, explained that in light of the recent cases, they wanted to make testing available more quickly. “We felt there was a need in the community to help, and so we just made a few phone calls,” he said.

Pacheco said the university requested either late Tuesday or early Wednesday that the state conduct testing and quickly found out that a crew would be arriving on Thursday. “So we didn’t know that this would be happening until about 4 p.m. Wednesday and that they would be arriving less than 24 hours later,” Pacheco explained.

By Wednesday evening, the university put out a flyer on social media and word spread of the testing. "Must come wearing mask and photo ID encouraged," read the flyer. No appointments would be needed.

But when residents arrived on Thursday afternoon, cars began to quickly pile up. And what was first supposed to be a walk-up test site with no appointments, became a disordered drive-thru with multiple lines and requests that people waiting in line call a hotline to set up an appointment, according to several residents who spoke with Marfa Public Radio.

A spokesperson with the Texas Division of Emergency Management explained the crew administering the tests had come in from Garden City — about 40 miles southeast of Midland — and had planned to set up the Gallego Center for walk-up testing. But when they arrived, the testing team didn't have time to prepare the facility and had to quickly pivot to drive-through testing.

On Thursday, residents reported waiting for hours in their cars, many eventually being turned away and told to make appointments and come back the following day.

On Friday and Saturday, the state's screening crew was able to set up testing inside of the Gallego Center, but the crowd of residents still led to long wait times — over four hours in some cases. At first there was confusion over where residents needed to enter the facility, some arrived early only to wait in the wrong line. Once inside the testing site, residents spent hours lined against the center's upper concourse, distanced from each other, slowly working their way to the arena's floor, where they gave their information to Texas National Guard troops. From there, officials estimate, it was another 25 minutes before residents were tested.

When mobile testing first came to Far West Texas in late April, each individual had to make an appointment online or by phone through the state’s COVID-19 hotline, unlike the screenings at Sul Ross. Texas has conducted three rounds of testing in most Big Bend cities so far, and operations have for the most part run smoothly. But turnout has paled in comparison to the latest round at SRSU. Before the university testing, between the hospital, area clinics and what's been done through the state, 595 residents had been screened for the disease.

Although COVID-19 testing this past week had the largest turnout in the tri-county area to date, some residents were frustrated by the many hours they felt were wasted.

The decentralized nature of the state’s multi-agency response infrastructure may contribute to complications with mobile testing. The Texas Department of State Services, The Texas Division of Emergency Management, The Texas National Guard, and local authorities were all involved in bringing testing to SRSU.

Captain Ray Rettig with the Texas National Guard helped coordinate the effort at Sul Ross. In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, he explained that crews have to remain flexible, adapting to different environments quickly.

“We were the closest team to respond,” said Rettig. “We got our instructions [the day before] and then we made sure we had our equipment ready to go… all your little minor details, so we can get here and get set up and get going in a moment’s notice. And that just shows the flexibility of all the teams in the state of Texas.”

Coronavirus testing will continue to take place throughout Far West Texas. To make an appointment, residents can visit txcovidtest.org or call 512-883-2400. Appointments can be scheduled 24 hours in advance of the testing day.

Testing Locations:

Tuesday, June 23: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Alpine: North Brewster County Emergency Response Center, 102 S. Second St.

Friday, June 26: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Marfa: Marfa Visitor Center, 302 South Highland Avenue

Sunday, June 28: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Fort Davis: Volunteer Fire Department, 202 Court Ave.

Monday, June 29: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Terlingua: South Brewster County Emergency Response Center, 23250 FM 170

Tuesday, June 30: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • City of Presidio: EMS and Fire Station, 100 E FM 170

Monday, July 6 : 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Marathon: Marathon Community Center
Diana Nguyen is a reporter for Marfa Public Radio.