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In Midland And Odessa, City Leaders Take Two Different Approaches To Fighting The Coronavirus

By Mitch Borden

Leaders in Midland and Odessa have faced a choice for months. The question, what actions should they take to slow the spread of the COVID-19. Since March, the coronavirus has infected thousands of residents of the two Permian Basin cities—leading to hundreds of deaths.

Odessa’s mayor this week made their choice by establishing a mask mandate, requiring employees and customers in businesses to wear face coverings. Midland leaders have considered similar orders but have so far failed to take action to prevent more residents from catching the deadly virus as hospitals are pushed to the brink. 

Mask Required…For Now

After weeks of deliberating what should be done, Odessa Mayor David Turner revealed his decision Tuesday during an event held by the city’s chamber of commerce. 

“We are begging and pleading for people to wear a mask.” Turner said, “Right now we are in a COVID crisis in Odessa. We have to lower the numbers because right now as they stand they’re dramatically affecting our economy, schools and especially the hospitals.” 

Beginning on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, the mask mandate will require businesses to have employees and customers properly wear masks over their mouth and nose. Businesses must post signs at entrances clearly stating customers must wear face coverings. If they don’t businesses will first receive a written warning and would face a fine up to $250 on subsequent offenses.

As of this week, the state renewed restrictions on Midland and Odessa, along with the majority of the region, in light of dwindling hospital capacity. After seven straight days of coronavirus patients taking up more than 15% of hospital beds across the Permian Basin and much of Far West Texas, the state  limited the number of customers businesses can serve as well as closing bars, with some exceptions.  

Turner stated his main motivator for using a mayoral proclamation to establish the mask order is economic. 

“The reason we did this, plain and simple, is that we’ve got to get these businesses back open, but we can’t do that until the numbers go down,” explained Turner during  a recent virtual coronavirus briefing.

Turner’s mask order will have to be renewed by the Odessa City Council early in December, which the Odessa mayor is confident the council will approve.

Midland Goes A Different Direction

Midland is only about 20 miles east of Odessa, but the recent pandemic response from city leadership couldn’t be more different. 

Since the pandemic began, county and city officials have made it clear they don’t agree with coronavirus restrictions set up by the state and for months only encouraged residents to wear masks and social distance. 

Since last week, Midland’s city council has reviewed four proposals that would’ve required residents to wear masks — each, swiftly rejected. Instead, city leaders continue to strongly suggest residents wear masks and are funneling CARES Act funding to Midland Memorial.

On Nov. 16, the council failed an ordinance similar to Odessa’s mask order. And more recently, the council largely voted against an ordinance that would have only required businesses to post a sign saying masks were required.

During one recent council meeting, Midlanders turned out to express their contempt for masks — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say is proven to be effective at slowing the spread of the pandemic.

“I didn’t get it,” a 70-year-old man said of the coronavirus. “My wife didn’t get it. My grandchildren didn’t get this thing. I don’t believe in the mask.”

Every anti-mask sentiment expressed to the council was met with a roar of applause. For Dr. Larry Wilson, the Chief Medical Officer at Midland Memorial, these sentiments were alarming. 

“There’s a lot of passion here, no question about it, a lot of misinformation as well,” Wilson told the council, he then added that the surge the city is seeing will continue if more Midlanders don’t take the proper precautions especially during Thanksgiving. 

“Our hospital is bursting at the seams,” he warned.

However, like previous warnings, Wilson’s didn’t convince Midland’s city council to approve a mask mandate. Rather, the council gave the green light to giving Midland Memorial over $1.3 million to help the hospital expand testing as well as bring in needed staff and equipment. 

Councilmembers also passed a resolution saying they support healthcare workers and residents taking preventive measures, like wearing masks.

Midland doctors and nurses though have said significant support would see  the city to take on substantive action as more residents are hospitalized for COVID-19. 

The Situation On The Ground For Healthcare Workers

In the Permian Basin, the two cities are the epicenter of healthcare in the region with three hospitals between them — Midland Memorial Hospital and Odessa’s Medical Center Hospital and Odessa Regional Medical Center. 

The facilities have been at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus in West Texas since the pandemic began to spread in the region. 

Now though, doctors and nurses here are facing an increasingly bleak situation.

Kit Bredimus, Midland Memorial’s Chief Nursing Officer,  recently took to social mediawhere he detailed how exhausting the fight to slow the pandemic has been. 

“I pray the gravity of the situation is understood by those who continue to ignore science, reason, and the greater good.” Bredimus wrote. “This virus is real, it is dangerous, and it will take every opportunity to spread if you let it.”

In the past month, the three hospitals have set new records for the number of patients with COVID-19 — many in critical condition. In Midland, hospital officials report about 1 in 4 people tested are diagnosed with the coronavirus. Odessa health officials have reported similar numbers.

Midland Memorial and Odessa’s Medical Center have been treating around 100 coronavirus patients consistently. At the same time, the smaller ORMC, is treating only a handful of patients compared to the larger two hospitals but is still being pushed to its limits as detailed  in a recent report by CNN. 

Meanwhile, healthcare workers are falling ill or having to quarantine after being exposed to the virus.

And facilities are relying more on healthcare workers sent from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fill in the gaps. Apart from limited staffing, Permian doctors are facing a new challenge, finding space to put patients as more locals are hospitalized with the virus. 

Midland Memorial Hospital is setting up an  outdoor emergency room housed in a large FEMA tent. In Odessa, officials have requested a mobile morgue. 

As of 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 25, at least 272 people have died due to complications with COVID-19 in the Midland-Odessa area and over 15,500 residents have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. 

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