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Big Bend-area doctor says omicron is leading to a local uptick in COVID-19 cases

Dr. Christie Alexander, Medical Director at the Marfa Country Clinic, says the local uptick has not led to a flood of hospitalizations, but “people are feeling very ill.”

By Travis Bubenik

Healthcare workers across West Texas say the continued spread of the omicron variant is leading to local upticks in COVID-19 cases.

In the Permian Basin, officials at Midland Memorial Hospital in recent days reported a testing positivity rate of more than 50%.

“We track a curve of positive tests and it’s gone straight up in the last couple of weeks,” Midland Memorial CEO Russell Meyers said during a briefing on Tuesday.

Local health workers in the Big Bend region have also seen an increase in people testing positive for the disease. But in a region where state data has been somewhat unreliable throughout the pandemic, it can be hard to pin down exactly how much of an impact the omicron variant is having.

For a sense of how the Big Bend-area spike in COVID-19 cases is looking, Marfa Public Radio spoke with Dr. Christie Alexander, Medical Director at the Marfa Country Clinic, a small rural healthcare provider.

Interview Highlights

How many people in the Big Bend are getting COVID-19?

“It has been an uptick of approximately 10 cases per week, I would say, since omicron first came on the scene, and that was around mid-December,” Alexander said. “I can definitely say the week right before New Years was where we really started to see the uptick, and then into this week, as our results from the PCR tests continue to trickle in.”

How sick are people getting?

Alexander said her clinic is generally not seeing people getting sick enough to be hospitalized, but they are still feeling “pretty ill.”

“People just feel very run down, very tired and very sick, even though they’re not having to be hospitalized,” she said.

Is the uptick in cases tied to recent holiday travel in and out of the Big Bend area?

“Some of what we were saying may have been just from Christmas, but it was probably prior to Christmas as well and just exposures in the community,” she said.

Alexander said she’s “leary” that the busy holiday season could lead to a further increase in local COVID cases this month.

“Now everybody’s back, and we’ll start to see what happens from there,” she said.

What’s the situation with COVID-19 testing in the region?

According to Alexander, because of testing shortages, like those seen around the U.S. in recent weeks, it’s “not so easy” to get a test for COVID-19 in the tri-county area at the moment.

“Apparently all the rapid tests have been sold out now for a few days at least, from what I’m hearing,” she said. “We had a very, very short supply of rapid tests that we were able to use during that week between Christmas and New Years, but the gold standard really is the PCR, and even those can be hard to come by.”

Alexander said her clinic is reserving PCR tests for people who are “really sick” or those who have had a known exposure to COVID-19. 

In a separate interview, another local healthcare worker told Marfa Public Radio she would like to see the National Guard return to conduct testing in the region.

“More testing is needed in the community than what we can provide,” said Linda Molinar, CEO of Preventative Care Health Services, which operates clinics in Marfa, Alpine and Presidio. “We need the state to come and help.”

Alexander said the Marfa Country Clinic would welcome that kind of help.

“It’s two-fold: it’s one, having the actual test in hand, and secondly, it’s the manpower,” she said. “So having the National Guard be the manpower would be very, very helpful.”

What is some practical advice for staying safe amid this latest COVID surge?

Alexander said vaccines and booster shots remain crucial for protection against the omicron variant, but so do older, simpler measures like wearing masks and handwashing.

“I think a lot of the community has gotten a little bit lax with masks, thinking ‘okay, I’m boostered though, it’s okay,’” she said. “But omicron is passing through all of that, so we want to make sure that people understand that.”

Mitch Borden contributed reporting from Midland.

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