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Permian Basin Health Officials Concerned Over COVID-19 Surge While Leaders Take Little Action

By Mitch Borden

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the Permian Basin, medical leaders are worried the region—without meaningful action or a drastic change in how residents are behaving—could become the state’s next covid hotspot.

Since the beginning of October, thousands of Midland and Odessa residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and the city’s hospitals are filling with patients in critical condition. But West Texans continue to shirk wearing masks and practicing social distancing — their defiant actions propped by city leaders who have not recently taken substantive action to prevent the spread of the virus.

This article was updated at 5:05 pm on Thursday.

During a virtual coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Midland Memorial Hospital’s CEO Russell Meyers said the status of the coronavirus situation is the “worst we’ve seen.”

In recent weeks, Permian Basin hospitals have broken records for the number of coronavirus patients being hospitalized, which is straining facilities. In the past few weeks, officials have said about 1 in 3 people tested are diagnosed with the virus. 

With the increase in hospitalizations, Midland Memorial Hospital has had to ask the state for additional resources like nurses, respiratory therapists and ventilators. Meyers said reinforcements have arrived, but it’s not enough to deal with the current surge of COVID-19 patients. 

“Our team is still stretched very thin,” said Meyers. “We are very appreciative of the extra resources, but we could still use more.”

Earlier this week, Midland Memorial hit a new record with over 80 coronavirus patients at the hospital. According to data provided by Midland Memorial, close to 30% of hospital beds have been taken up by coronavirus patients over the last week. 

“This is very widespread across the whole community, across the whole region,” Meyers explained. 

Because of the climbing positivity rate in Midland, the city’s health department is over a week behind on contact tracing and has stopped releasing the daily number of new cases. As of Nov. 3, there’s been a total of 6,405 confirmed coronavirus cases in Midland County, only 3,935 have recovered. At least 110 people have died due to complications related to COVID-19 since March.

While Gov. Greg Abbott has mandated Texas Counties with over 20 confirmed coronavirus cases to wear masks in public, local officials are instead pushing for residents to take responsibility into their own hands.

But some healthcare providers are beginning to say leaders need to do more than just suggest precautions. 

“Encouraging responsibility is not working," Midland Memorial’s Chief Nursing Officer Kit Bredimus told the Midland City Council on Monday. “We are at the mercy of those who choose not to take responsibility.”

Bredimus called into the council meeting to highlight the seriousness of the situation facing Midland. He said the city is on track to become the next El Paso, which has been dealing with a massive outbreak since September, and that local politicians hold the community’s future in their hands. 

“The hospital is doing all it can at this point, and the only thing to change the trajectory of this outbreak are the attitudes and behaviors of our city and this council,” He implored. “I am asking all of you to come out with a full-throat endorsement of the Governor’s executive order for minimum standard health protocols, including the required use of masks.”

That plea fell on deaf ears — at least when it came to Midland Mayor Patrick Payton. A day after listening to Bredimus, Payton told the public he wouldn't implement a mask mandate. 

“I can't even imagine the circumstance where we would have our police officers patrolling and then walking into stores, I mean, if someone's not six feet apart, walking outside, do we pull them over?”

Currently, the governor has authorized local governments and authorities to fine individuals up to $250 for not wearing a mask while in public after a verbal or written warning is issued. This order is only in effect where social distancing isn’t possible along with other limited exceptions. 

Still, Payton refuses to enforce the order.

“We want to encourage people to get back to those practices of masks, of social distancing...If we're going to beat these numbers back. Quite frankly, this is the only way we're going to do it.”

When Newswest 9's Sammi Steele asked Payton about Bredimus’ request that the city council to enforce the governor’s mask mandate, Payton denied that’s what the doctor had said.

“I point-blank asked him if he thought that a mandate was something we should do,” Payton said Wednesday. And he'd said, ‘It is not something we should do. It's not something we can enforce.”

However, Bredimus corrected the mayor on Facebook Wednesday morning. 

“I am disappointed my message was misunderstood and broken into semantics. Let me be crystal clear. I want the Mayor and city council to enforce the Governor's executive order."

On Thursday afternoon a spokesperson for the City of Midland announced Mayor Payton is bringing a mask mandate to the city council for deliberation. If approved businesses would be required to have employees and customers wear masks. If a business refuses to do so it could be fined up to $500 per violation. *

*Editors Note: The City of Midland announced the proposed mask ordinance that would be reviewed by its city council on Nov. 17 after this article was published.

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