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Marfa Clinic Sees Uptick in COVID-19 Cases Ahead of Busy Festival Week

A recent spike of 15-20 cases in the community of about 1,600 has one local doctor advising Marfans to mask up to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

By Travis Bubenik

A doctor in Marfa is warning that residents need to step up their precautions against the coronavirus after a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

Marfa Country Clinic has confirmed 15-20 positive COVID cases over the last three weeks, said Christie Alexander, who joined the clinic in July.

In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, Alexander said while the raw number of new cases might not seem large, residents should still take the uptick seriously.

“I think people downplay, ‘oh, it’s only 16 cases,’” she said. “Well, 16 turns into 100 really fast, if we’re not safe and if we’re not careful.”

This small surge in cases even caused the Country Clinic to close for two days last week because staff were exposed to the coronavirus. 

For now, Alexander said it’s unclear whether the uptick will be a temporary blip or a trend that endures. 

“It’s hard to say how bad this is going to be, this is just something we’ve noticed here in the past three weeks,” Alexander said.

For most of the summer, with the majority of residents fully vaccinated, COVID case numbers in rural Presidio County have remained at or near zero, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. But the state data began showing an increase in “probable cases” in the county in mid-August. Since then, reports of new cases have begun to trickle in about every week.

Some of the recent cases have been so-called “breakthrough” cases of fully vaccinated people catching the virus, Alexander said, but she stressed that even though some vaccinated individuals are falling ill, the vaccines have successfully protected many from needing to be hospitalized.

The doctor also noted that the spike in cases comes as Marfa prepares for a busy festival week, with the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love returning to hotel-campground El Cosmico after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

Last month, the hotel announced updated COVID safety protocols, including requirements that all guests and workers be fully vaccinated or show a negative COVID test to enter the festival grounds. The festival’s capacity has also been cut in half this year.

“We are prepared to turn people away, for sure,” El Cosmico owner Liz Lambert previously told Marfa Public Radio. 

Lambert pointed to the success of much larger festivals held earlier this summer with similar precautions like Chicago’s Lollapalooza, which health officials said did not lead to a major spike in COVID cases.

“We really believe at this point that we can do this safely,” she said.

Alexander, whose clinic will be operating a medical tent at the festival, said the updated safety rules are “wonderful,” but that the rules aren’t guaranteed to prevent further spread of the virus at the festival. The clinic has not directly tied any of the recent batch of COVID cases to the Marfa Lights Festival, another sizable outdoor gathering held earlier this month.

Asked for her best practical advice for staying safe at the Trans-Pecos festival, Alexander said those who are vaccinated should still mask up, even while outdoors if they’re in a crowded area.

“You can still have a good time...but stay masked if you can,” she said. “Ideally, masking up would be the best way to keep yourself protected and those around you protected while you’re there.”

More broadly, Alexander said Marfa businesses may want to revisit their own masking protocols and residents should pay closer attention to their individual risk factors.

“Are you immunocompromised, are you in the high-risk category?” she said. “Just think about your own risk situation when you decide to go out to dinner somewhere, go to the festival, meet with friends, all of those things.”

Disclaimer: El Cosmico is a financial supporter of Marfa Public Radio, and the hotel’s owner Liz Lambert sits on Marfa Public Radio’s board of directors.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.