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Sparse COVID Testing In The Big Bend Has The Region's Only Hospital Considering Holding Drive-Thru Testing

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas.

With infrequent screening for the coronavirus in the Big Bend area, officials are attempting to gather testing supplies and the region's lone hospital may soon set up weekly testing for residents showing symptoms associated with the virus. 

In the last few weeks, Brewster County has received hundreds of nasal testing swabs from the state and it appears that Big Bend Regional Medical Center is preparing to use that stockpile to run a weekly drive-thru testing site in Alpine. That move comes as local health officials brace for fall and winter when they say robust testing will be especially important.

In a memo shared with Big Bend clinics and physicians, the private hospital outlined the scope of the operation. The document says the purpose of the testing efforts is to "supplement  the ways to provide provider-ordered COVID-19 testing in the Big Bend region."

The hospital hasn’t officially released the testing plan to the public, but earlier this week marketing director Ruth Hucke stated the hospital’s administration was in “active discussions” with local and state officials to secure more supplies and expand the region’s testing capabilities. “We look forward to sharing additional information in the coming weeks,” Hucke said.

According to the hospital’s memo, the testing wouldn’t be open to the general public but limited to residents who have an order from a physician approving a coronavirus screening. According to the document obtained by Marfa Public Radio, the hospital will test up to 50 people every Wednesday although it’s unclear when the testing will begin or how testing appointments will be scheduled. 

The hospital told physicians, patients will be charged at least $25 per test.

Once the testing begins, the hospital will assess the process and if it’s “ineffective,” drive-thru testing will be stopped, according to the document. 

Since April, testing for the coronavirus in the Tri-County area has largely been provided by the state. But local officials don’t have a lot of power when it comes to deciding when Texas National Guard units are sent to the Big Bend. So far, community-wide testing for the coronavirus has happened roughly every two to three weeks, although it’s not clear if state testing will increase or decrease in the future.

“Eventually, when [state] testing slows down, the hospital is going to do testing,” said Brewster County emergency management coordinator Stephanie Elmore.

But the county’s health authority Dr. Ekta Escovar says the Big Bend area needs to be more proactive in expanding its testing. 

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
Since April, testing for the coronavirus in the Tri-County area has largely been provided by the state.

During a Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting late last month, Dr. Escovar said mobile testing and, more recently, the testing provided through private contractors was helpful, but that the region needed consistent screening for coronavirus, especially in the coming weeks.

“At some point, we’re going to have to figure out how to [do] the testing ourselves,” said Escovar, who leads the region’s COVID-19 taskforce.”I really don’t know if [relying on mobile testing from the state]is going to be something that’s sustainable for months and months and months on end.”

Healthcare officials say part of the problem of depending on the state for testing is it only captures a small snapshot of positive coronavirus patients at a certain time. 

“Having mobile testing come through every three weeks is great,” said Escovar, specifically referring to the locals who happen to be sick when testing happens. “But really, what we need is local ongoing testing even in smaller amounts” to catch cases we’re missing right now. 

Increased, frequent testing will be especially important during the flu season, since there are overlapping symptoms between the flu and the coronavirus. In the winter, “it's going to be much harder to tease out what's what,” said Escovar. 

Last year, the seasonal flu was particularly bad in the Marfa area, but local health authorities are hopeful that preventative measures Big Bend residents are taking due to the coronavirus could translate to a low number of people catching the flu.

To date, 3,800 Big Bend residents have been tested for the coronavirus through the hospital, area clinics and the state's mobile testing operations.

At this time Big Bend Regional Medical Center has not released any timeline concerning its any testing site.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.