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After Summer Surge, Virus Cases in Rural Texas County Drop to Zero

By Travis Bubenik, Courthouse News

ALPINE, Texas (CN) — As the coronavirus continues to circulate across the Lone Star State, having killed more than 11,000 Texans since the pandemic began, one far-flung county in the state’s remote western region hit a significant positive milestone in recent days: the number of active local cases fell to zero.

The achievement in rural Brewster County isn’t a first for Texas – other rural parts of the state have had low or even no confirmed case numbers throughout the pandemic – and it didn’t come without its share of pain. Two people died from Covid-19 and at least 200 were sickened, while the tourism-dependent local economy was  hit hard by a drop in visitors,  on-and-off closures of a popular national park and government-mandated  shutdowns of hotels and bars.

Still, the milestone is a notable one that has local officials in this sprawling desert region breathing easier after a  surge in virus cases in June initially threatened to overwhelm the area’s small hospital in Alpine, a town of about 6,000 people.

“The fact that we brought our cases down to zero, that was the doing of an entire community and an entire county really stepping up and doing their part,” Ekta Escovar, a doctor who serves as the Brewster County Local Health Authority, said in an interview.

A coronavirus “risk level” map from health researchers at Harvard University  identifiesBrewster County as one of the relatively few counties in the U.S. that are “on track for containment,” but Escovar cautioned that the region is not out of the woods yet and that continued testing will be essential to preventing another outbreak, especially as college students return to  in-person classes at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.

The county’s summer surge in cases was initially driven by the virus spreading among younger people who worked at local restaurants and through high school graduation parties and other social gatherings, Escovar said.

“Looking at contact tracing, it does look like it spread through the restaurant industry pretty quickly,” she said. “A lot of these folks may know each other, they may be friends or students at Sul Ross, so it kind of spread from one restaurant to another.”

Continued testing should focus on workers at high-risk places like restaurants, hotels and the local hospital, Escovar said, while officials should also keep an eye out for new outbreaks at the college.

Though the recent numbers are encouraging, Brewster County officials have warned that people who are deemed recovered from Covid-19 and no longer considered active cases aren’t necessarily back to full health yet.

“Symptoms can last weeks to months beyond the Covid-19 infection, but the recoveries track ‘no longer contagious’ individuals,” the county wrote in a Facebook post in July. “This does not mean all of these individuals are fully symptom-free.”

While the potential remains for the virus to resurface locally, especially as results from continued rounds of testing continue to trickle in, some are itching for a return to some kind of normal.

Bill Ivey, a restaurant and hotel owner in the borderlands ghost town of Terlingua near Big Bend National Park, said he’s sensed a feeling among some in the community that they’re simply tired of pandemic-related restrictions.

“‘How long do we have to wear a mask when we’re at zero,’ I think is where we’re headed,” he said.

In an interview, Ivey himself expressed frustration with the national park’s move to only partially reopen and said the county’s earlier decision to close hotels was “devastating” to the region’s economy. That move prompted a lawsuit against the county’s top elected official from one prominent local hotel owner.

“There’s been a lot of damage done,” Ivey said. “It’s been one huge blow after another.”

Others welcomed and even applauded the pandemic-related restrictions. Ivey also serves as board president for the Brewster County Tourism Council, which typically promotes travel to the region but scaled back as some residents complained that encouraging tourists to visit would risk importing the virus from hot spots.

“We’re not saying ‘come to the Big Bend,’ we’re saying, ‘welcome to the Big Bend,’” Ivey said of the council’s current approach to marketing. “We will never take the welcome sign down.”

Mike Micallef, owner of the Reata Restaurant in Alpine, said his business has taken a hit this year as tourist traffic has slowed, though he did see an uptick in recent weeks as the local virus case numbers declined.

“I think you are seeing people gain more confidence, there are more people going out in Alpine for dinner now than there were a month ago,” he said. “The biggest thing I have to worry about is just, we can’t get complacent.”

Statewide, most restaurants in Texas remain limited to 50% capacity after an  executive order from Republican Governor Greg Abbott in June that also shut down bars. In July, when Abbott first  issued a statewide mask order, the governor allowed counties with few or no virus cases to apply for exemptions from the mandate. Brewster County has so far not sought such an exemption.

Escovar, the local health authority, has stressed that continued testing is a mechanism for eventually reopening the economy further, urging locals to get tested whenever possible even if they don’t have symptoms.

“The way we really, truly know that Covid is not present in our community is by continuing to test a high number of people, so that’s the message going forward,” she said. “That’s how we keep our national park open, that’s how we keep our restaurants open.”